Solar Power: The Idea, the Reality and the Future
Energy is expensive. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, it’s just not possible to get more energy out of a system than you put in. Thus, when it comes to generating power, you’ll always be stuck with a bad investment. However, there is a bit of a work around to this problem. See, if you can get someone or something else to supply the initial energy for you, then you can reap the rewards without having to worry about the cost. And while that may not sound very honest, it is in fact the basic idea behind solar power.
See, the sun does all the work, crushing hydrogen atoms together and flinging the resultant energy out into space. All we have to do is figure out a way to harness it when it reaches earth.
Of course, that’s not to say that harnessing solar energy is easy. In order for us to be able to convert it into useable electricity, humanity first had to discover the photoelectric effect. See, when sunlight hits an object, the energy that it carries has to go somewhere. Some of it is reflected, but the majority of the energy is bled off as heat. However, certain materials allow for a third option. Silicon, for example, is a semiconductor, which means that the electrons contained inside it tend to get excited and move around when exposed to direct sunlight. This is known as the photoelectric effect. These electrons generate an electrical current, which can be captured and utilized.
This was first discovered in 1876 by William Grylls Adams and Richard Day, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin developed an efficient enough solar cell to actually be able to run small electrical devices from the power it produced. Within a few years, solar power began to be heavily used by both American and Soviet space programs.
Today, solar power is viewed as one of the most promising alternate energy sources available. After all, sunlight is free and abundant all over the world, and will continue to be so until the sun burns itself out in a few billion years from now.
As such, the solar industry is booming. In 2012, the solar industry grew a whopping 76%, and now supplies the United States with 3,133 megawatts of clean energy. This is, in part, thanks to growing concern over the environmental damage caused by the processes used to generate conventional power, as well as issues regarding the lack of coal and fossil fuel renewability.