Why We Love Solar (And You Should Too!)

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Did you know that there’s a nuclear fusion reactor silently supplying an increasing amount of the worldwide energy demand?

What? A fusion reactor is already online and producing electricity?

Yes! But we’re not talking about an earthbound nuclear fusion reactor. We’re talking about fusion energy from the sun.

NASA photo of sun
The sun produces about 3.8x10E26 watts – that’s the number 38 followed by 25 zeros!

Last year, the U.S. hit a solar power production milestone by reaching a capacity of 10 gigawatts – that’s ten billion watts – which is roughly the power generating capacity of 10 nuclear power plants. On a worldwide scale, PV (Photo-Voltaic solar cell) capacity reached about 120 gigawatts by the end of 2013. And it’s growing fast. By the end of 2015, worldwide PV power is expected to reach nearly 220 gigawatts.

This may seem encouraging news, but keep in mind that solar power is only making a dent in the worldwide electrical energy demand. But it’s a dent that continues to grow, motivated not only by raw economics, but by the realization of the environmental risks that terrestrial power generation imposes.

While that big fusion reactor in the sky seems perfectly happy to continue producing life-giving power with no environmental damage, terrestrial power production is running into several big problems. Nuclear power, for example, is getting a bad rap these days. Prior to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the U.S. was on track to build 17 gigawatts worth of additional nuclear power plants. After the disaster, that number dwindled to 5 gigawatts.

At the same time, greenhouse gasses continue to rise along with a worldwide thirst for more energy. Carbon dioxide emissions hit a staggering 34.5 billion tons during 2012, and the annual growth in this number is somewhere in the region of 3 percent. Additionally, global energy consumption will rise 41 percent from 2012 to 2040, according to some estimates. While the debate over the effects of carbon dioxide rages on within the political spectrum, the scientific community is in general agreement that the rise in greenhouse gasses will result in a major – and perhaps disastrous – climate change.

Without any alternative energy source, the choice of energy production would appear to be a choice between two evils. It’s little wonder that forward thinking individuals and businesses are looking for safer and more ecologically conscious alternatives, particularly solar.

But can our fusion reactor in the sky meet that energy demand? Perhaps not entirely, but it can certainly mitigate the risks of other terrestrial forms of energy production. The bright spot (pun intended) in this whole debate is that the cost of solar energy production is falling rapidly. This has inspired a gold rush into the solar energy business, which is increasing solar production capacity and providing an increasing percentage of the worldwide energy demand.

world consumes 5500 gigawatts of electrical power
Currently, the world consumes about 5500 gigawatts of electrical power

To put the cost of solar into perspective, let’s look at a bit of history. During the hippie-inspired pursuit of solar energy back in the 1970s, you would have paid nearly $80 per watt of solar electricity. From a business perspective, this was an unacceptably high cost to pay. Keep in mind that the original hippie-inspired push for solar energy took place before any of the big nuclear power disasters, and the term “greenhouse gas” wasn’t even in the popular lexicon. The reality was that electrical energy via coal, gas and nuclear was costing only pennies per kilowatt-hour, which completely derailed attempts to implement solar power on any scale.

Times have changed, however, and from a business perspective, solar power is becoming a lot more attractive. New manufacturing techniques and mass production have brought the price of solar cells down by a factor of over 100, to about 70 cents per watt.

At those prices, big business is jumping into the picture in a big way. Last year (2013), for example, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings invested nearly $2+ billion to construct a 579 megawatt PV solar farm in Antelope Valley, California. Worldwide investment in renewable energy (which includes solar, wind and hydro) amounted to $244.4 billion in 2012.

Worldwide solar power 140 gigawatts
Worldwide solar power generation is estimated at approximately 140 gigawatts, or about 2.5% of worldwide electrical power consumption

The bottom line is that the world is rapidly entering the solar power market, seeking to offset the environmental costs associated with terrestrial based sources of power. While idealists have been pushing for this change for several decades, only recently has it become economically feasible to implement solar energy on a mass scale.

What does this all mean to you? Well, if you don’t care about greenhouse gasses or the possibility of nuclear disaster, it probably doesn’t mean much. But it’s a big deal to the rest of us that hang onto our energy habits with as much enthusiasm as we hang onto our iPhones, while trying to keep from damaging our environment.

Hey, with this new knowledge, we can party like hippies, at least until the sun goes down.

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