Solar energy is usually thought to be a more recent form of alternative energy, with a short history stemming back to the 1970’s during the energy crisis. This assumption would be incorrect. The beginnings of solar energy can be traced all the way back to the fifteenth century. There have been sketches by Leonardo da Vinci found, showing techniques trying to find ways to harness the sun’s energy. Much credit for the invention of solar energy goes to August Mouchet in the 1860’s when he created a solar powered motor and steam engine. He was also able to make ice using solar energy.
In the 1870’s William Adams created a system using mirrors and the sun to power a steam engine. It was known as the Power Tower Concept and is still in use today. Not too long after that Charles Fritz created the first solar cell, and a few years after that solar energy was used to heat water in Charles Tellier’s home. Even dating back to the 1800’s, people were becoming aware of the issues of nonrenewable resources. It wasn’t until the 1950’s however that silicon was discovered as being a potent semiconductor. Silicon has been used to make up solar cells and panels for decades and is still generally used.
In recent decades solar energy hasn’t been used to its full potential because of production costs. Today people and companies are taking a different approach to solar energy to increase its usage and make it more affordable. General Electric is one company that is trying not only to find different approaches to solar energy, but also to make it more affordable to consumers. They have transitioned from the traditional makeup of solar panels to a thinner, and more economical panel that is also faster to make. Just last month GE participated in SXSW 2011 by putting together a carousel that ran completely on solar energy. They gutted an old Allan Herschell carousel, switched out the motor for an electric motor and added LED lighting. It took 72 panels to run the entire event over a five-day span.
Big Belly is another company that is using solar energy to clean up the environment and cut down on costs across the board. They have created solar powered trash compactors that can go on the streets as public trash receptacles. The cans can store up to five times more trash than a traditional trash can. This in turn cuts down on operating costs, fuel consumption and greenhouse gases. Also, because it runs totally on solar energy, they are able to offer recycling on the street and it all runs on the amount of energy it takes to light up a Christmas tree light.
In 2009 with the help of architect Toyo Ito, Taiwan built a stadium that is run completely on solar energy. The 50,000-seat stadium’s power is generated by 8,844 solar panels that supply the energy for the 3,300 lights and two jumbo vision screens. The stadium took only six minutes to power up when it was first tested. It also has included other green features as permeable pavements and extensive use of reusable, domestically made materials. It was built on about 47 acres, 17 of those acres dedicated to the development of green spaces, bike paths, sports parks, and an ecological pond. Also on days when the stadium is not in use, the surplus energy is transferred into the local grid to supply the neighboring areas energy requirements.
Currently, there have also have been many projects that combine art and architecture with functionality. Lunar Cubit is an award winning design proposal for solar panel pyramids that aim to power homes in Abu Dhabi, while also serving as an illuminated art installation for the public at night. Another example of this kind of installation would be the Boston Treepods design. These artificial trees would be made out of recycled water bottles. They would filter the air of carbon dioxide with the help of solar panels. At night they would also serve as a lighting display for the public to enjoy.
According to a study done by the International Energy Agency (IEA) it is estimated that a quarter of the world’s electricity supply will be coming from solar energy by the year 2050. Eleven percent of the supply is estimated to come from homes and offices while another eleven percent coming from central solar power stations. The executive director of the IEA is predicting that solar power stations can become competition to nuclear and coal power plants as early as 2030. They are also predicting that North America will be the largest supplier of solar power station electricity, followed by India and North Africa.
With the cost of solar energy on the decline I foresee this avenue of alternative energy becoming more prominent and its uses becoming applicable in more areas. Already it is being tested in outlets that most people wouldn’t think that it could be used. The GE Carousolar would be an example of this. Solar energy cannot only decrease our dependency on fossil fuels but can also be used to cut down on greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions. I think that solar energy would be extremely beneficial to the promotion and commercialization of electric cars. These two fields together can push things to the forefront.
Scientists have also been experimenting with harnessing the energy in different formats or mediums. Paint is one of those mediums. It is still in the beginning stages of development and is not ready for commercialization, but if they were successful in this endeavor the entire energy game would change. With solar paint, the amount of energy that could be harnessed and the surfaces that could be used to collect it would be astounding. Automobile Paint, playgrounds, laptops, toys, traffic signs and paint, you name it. With the creation of photovoltaic components on a nanoscale, the possibilities seem endless. Why stop at paint if eventually you can create a multitude of materials and objects with minuscule solar cells built in.
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