THE BLOG

Will the World Plug Into the Sun?

29/06/2015 10:41 BST | Updated 28/06/2016 10:59 BST

Even as the world is frantically searching for alternative energy, there is one source that will always hang around without ever getting depleted. The Sun.

In the next 10 to 20 years, or maybe even by 2050, solar PV is expected to be the main source of powerful energy, suited to the new millennium.

The galloping winds of global installed capacity of solar electricity have shot up six times between 2010 and 2013. By the end of 2009, the installed capacity was 23 GW, while in the following four years, about 28 GW was added every year, taking it to 135 GW by the end of 2013. But the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that more than 36 GW of new solar capacity was added in 2013, or about 100 MW per day.

Why is this source of power becoming so popular?

The reasons are simple. Due to the zero cost of the fuel, as well as its permanence and sustainability, this one source of energy is vastly superior to every other source of electricity. It sure is a neater way of generating power. Look at the conventional ones---coal, gas, nuclear, or even just concentrated solar power plants. They all are from steam-producing sources that rotate a turbine, which, in turn, provides the mechanical force to electric generators.

Solar energy, though, through photovoltaic cells, converts sunlight into electricity. As photons of light stoke the surface of semiconductors, they shake electrons loose, which become part of a charged electrical field. It generates an electromotive force that is then tapped and conducted through wires.

It is obvious that solar energy is static, mainly because a solar cell has no mobile parts, so operation and maintenance costs are low. Yet investing in the infrastructure and basic maintenance has helped to cut costs and lower pollution drastically. The solar PV's unique power generating technique is also easily distributed. There are currently many utilities that are dependent on large solar panels.

Yet, one of the challenges of photovoltaic technology is the requirement of large installations of infrastructure over large tracts. Although there is enough sunlight that can stoke human civilization many times over, it is still not adequate due to less supply of sunlight per unit area.

Moreover, although silicon panels are heavy, their manufacture and disposal involves toxic chemicals, while their efficiency with which they convert sunlight to energy is just about 10 to 15 percent. Although these flaws are part of solar energy radiation, scientists are researching alternative, non-toxic materials, which can lead to larger panels that hit 20 percent efficiency.

Riding the wave:

Now where do you think this is going to take us in future? Are we going to ride high?

At present, solar PV may not be enough to cover all our energy needs---even in the sub-Saharan Africa, or in Texas. Even if you place panels in every inch of land, it may not generate enough energy to power the needs of the entire region. There is just not enough research or development that has been done.

Hence, a few years later, wireless charging would have become just more efficient and smaller too. In the city, with solar energy in curbs, benches, and buses, energy distribution could soon become popular. Soon, all our devices and structures will get linked with this distributed energy net, which stores and shares the sun's power. Soon, solar PV might just diffuse into infrastructure, and become a part of the environment.

It is expected that various systems will evolve and change along with the new model of energy production, as well as storage, and sharing. The power structure is expected to develop in holistic ways, replacing entire parts, rather than merely parts of grids.

As the supply of solar PV as well as storage goes up, it seems to be inevitable as the solar energy supply source of the future. Hence, even as global energy systems seem flawed and unjust, there are bound to be newer and more efficient technological alternatives. Distributed power rather than the concentrated kind always works better.

As one of the emerging giants of the world, India is one of the solar powerhouse aspirants, and is being called the "dark horse in the global solar race."

Currently, solar power is already becoming an important source of energy. But right now, it has just 3 GW of installed solar capacity, as it added less than 1 GW last year, which is just about 1 percent of the country's installed capacity of 260 GW, according to India's ministry of power. Compared to China, which has under 40 GW of installed capacity, and the total global solar capacity of 360 GW, India's 3 GW is poor.

However, India does have the courage to dream, and by 2022, it expects to raise installed capacity to 100 GW, which would meet only about 10 percent of its needs, but yet would be a surge in power. The corporate world is signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with state governments, which would be a huge step ahead in its plan of action to pursue alternative sources of solar energy.

Here comes the sun, then.