Solar Energy - The Energy Of The Future
Mankind has inadvertently been utilizing solar energy since thousands of years for a variety of purposes like drying clothes and drying food grains, drying fruits/vegetables or other food items, and marinating and pickling foods. In rural areas of developing countries it is still a common practice during winter to warm and melt the solidified coconut oil by leaving it in the sun for some time, or even to render the freezing cold water to a comfortable tepid warm level for bath and other household purposes. The many advantages of solar energy over other energy resources make it one of the most promising natural resources of energy available today.
These above-mentioned examples represent the most direct use of solar radiation in its natural form as thermal energy, without any technical intervention to enhance the desired effects and without converting this energy into any other form. Advances in science and technology have made it possible to exploit solar radiation to its maximum potential for use in a wide range of applications such as electric power generation, solar cookers, solar heaters, etc. As a matter of fact, mankind has entered a new era where the future of the human race, and perhaps of all life forms, depends on fully harnessing the advantages of solar energy.
When one talks of the advantages of solar energy, no discussion is complete without reference to the primary source of energy available to us at present – the fossil fuels. These include coal, natural gas and crude oil mined from deep inside the earth.
A unique advantage of solar energy is that this source of energy is practically unlimited and renewable, unlike the fossil fuels, which are ultimately going to be depleted sooner or later. Think of it, the amount of solar energy intercepted by the earth every minute is greater than the amount of energy the entire world uses in fossil fuels the whole year around! Incredible, isn’t it? Also, solar energy is easily available pretty much everywhere on the earth unlike fossil fuels, which need to be extensively searched for underground. Even in places where the sunshine is not enough, solar power can be used to meet some low-power applications.
However, the most critical advantage of solar energy is that this unlimited source of energy is totally environment-friendly, which fossil fuels are not. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels are the prime cause of global warming. Using solar energy to generate electricity will not only reduce the consumption of the earth’s limited fossil fuels but also help combat global warming. Moreover, initially the raw solar energy comes free of cost. Of course, subsequently the cost of technology to convert it into electricity or to concentrate it creeps in, but that’s another story.
The beauty of solar power lies in the fact that even a small solar electric system can make a huge environmental impact. According to a study, a 2.5 kW solar system reduces CO2 emissions by an amount comparable to that achieved by planting trees on 1 acre of land – an amount equivalent to that emitted by a passenger car driving 7,800 miles/year. In places where the sun shines liberally, you can save a lot on your electricity bills by installing inexpensive thermal solar water heaters in place of electric or gas heaters. However, as of now, the prohibitive cost of installing a solar electric generator makes it uneconomical for high-power residential applications. But a day will come when the advantages of solar energy will be exploited in all walks of life, for all kinds of applications – for only then can the human race hope to last as long as the sun shines.