Solar energy is the most promising source of clean, renewable energy. It is also one of the most misunderstood.
Myths about solar energy--its challenges and potential--keep many from seriously considering the large-scale promise of solar to solve the energy crisis.
First, let's define energy crisis. The global demand for energy continues to grow. In 2005, electric power plants produced 17,000 terawatt-hours; by 2030, global projections nearly double to 33,000 terawatt-hours. For perspective, a single terawatt-hour can power about 90,600 homes for an entire year. It takes 15 terawatt-hours to power Chicago each year.
This means we need to ramp up quickly, efficiently, in the next two decades if the world's electrical needs are to be met. Solar is poised to do this, we just need to debunk the myths about this energy source, myths that are slowing us down.
We're going to address some of those myths, right here and now, so we can focus on solving the problem.
The global demand for energy continues to grow. In 2005, electric power plants produced 17,000 terawatt-hours; by 2030, global projections nearly double to 33,000 terawatt-hours. For perspective, a single terawatt-hour can power about 90,600 homes for an entire year. It takes 15 terawatt-hours to power Chicago each year.
MYTH #1: The energy crisis can be completely solved on rooftops. Rooftop systems are a start, but they can't solve the energy crisis alone. If 25 million households (about one of every five American homes) installed a 2-kilowatt rooftop system, that would meet a mere two percent of the U.S. demand. To really make an impact on the overall energy challenge, large solar plants are needed.
MYTH #2: Solar cell efficiency is the most important thing for making large-scale solar feasible. Increasing solar cell efficiency is a step in the right direction, but by itself, it won't get us to our goal of solving the energy problem by 2030. Efficiency is important when dealing with limited energy resources, such as geothermal steam or coal. But, in solar, we have a virtually unlimited energy resource. A more efficient use of our innovative energy would be to find ways to reduce the costs of building solar energy power plants so that the power produced is as cheap as that from oil, gas and coal.
MYTH #3: There's not enough land to create solar farms big enough to solve the problem. There is plenty of land available. The kind of land needed depends on the technology of the solar farm. Building enough CPV power plants to equal a 150- by 150-mile square tract of land (equal in size to the Texas Panhandle) could supply the entire nation's energy through 2030.
MYTH #4: Solar (energy) storage is a big problem. Wouldn't it be great to have so much solar energy produced that we were worried about how to “store” what we cannot use? Right now, solar provides a small fraction (about 0.02 percent) of the electricity used in the United States. The energy potential of solar is huge: Stanford scientists tell us that at every instant, 31,000 terawatts of sunlight shines on the Earth's land masses. This is many orders of magnitude more energy than any other renewable resource and can supply all of our electricity needs many times over. We need to develop inexpensive technology to capture a fraction of that solar energy. We have a long way to go before storage is a problem!
Four common solar myths: busted. It's time to move beyond the old mindsets and see solar for what it is: A nearly limitless energy resource that, with the right combination of technology and materials, can provide power for the future. But there's no time to waste. We shouldn't let the myths distract us from the challenge: If the goal of meeting the energy needs of 2030 was a mountain the elevation of Mount Everest, solar has advanced 23 feet above sea level. Solar has the potential to reach the summit. It's time to get serious.