Science / Solar Power

Seeing the Light: Solar Power’s Bright Future

Consumers and industries around the world are using increasingly creative ways to capture solar power. The International Energy Agency predicted that solar energy could be the world’s largest source of electricity by mid-century. However, the US lags far behind other countries in the race for solar energy. Studies have suggested that solar power will account for only ten percent of the US’s energy needs by 2025. Germany, on the other hand, hopes to be using only renewable energy by 2050. In Germany and Italy, solar power already accounts for almost 10 percent of energy production, while the US is still barely generating enough solar energy to add up to 1 percent of our energy needs. While Americans are installing solar panels on poles, schools, and office spaces, Japan, India, and Germany are taking a collaborative, utility-scale approach to installation. They’re building larger, geographically amenable solar power plants that power electricity grids farther and farther away. If America is to keep up with the future of energy, it must look abroad for inspiration.

Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has taken the lead in investing in a future fueled by solar power. Public confidence in nuclear energy was destroyed at Fukushima. Because 30 percent of the country’s energy came from nuclear power before 2011, the nation has scrambled to find a stable replacement source. Nearly fifty nuclear power sites sit idle, while more and more roofs are covered with photovoltaic panels. Three ambitious Japanese energy companies, Kyocera Corporation, Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation, and Ciel Terre, are teaming up to create two huge floating solar power plants. These will join the Kagoshima solar plant, the biggest in the country, which floats in the sea near southern Japan. These first two solar plants would provide enough energy for anywhere between 483 and 967 American households. Also under way is a plan for thirty floating two megawatt (MW) power plants, capable of generating a combined 60 MW of power, which could power the equivalent of up to 400,000 American homes.

Few would have thought the mountainous country of Japan would be one of the first to deliberately switch to solar energy. Large amounts of flat land are necessary to create productive solar power plants because the panels need to have optimal surface area contact with the sun. Japan, one of the most topographically challenging nations in the world, has used floating solar plants as a means to overcome solar energy’s space and flatness requirements. Additionally, because of water’s ability to retain coolness in warm weather, solar panels on water are more efficient than those on land as their temperature has a greater photovoltaic difference from the sun. The large, floating solar panels also cover the water and prevent evaporation in the extremely warm summer months.

Many other countries not flat enough for solar fields are also developing alternative ways of installing plants. India has started on a plan to install 10MW solar plants on top of several canals. They’re also organizing a floating power station on one of the large stretches of water in Kerala, a state in the southwest region of India. Swiss pioneers Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg have created the second solar powered aircraft, which will make its first round-the-world solar flight in 2015. According to test pilot Markus Scherberg, the aircraft has, “…the wingspan of a jumbo jet and the weight of a car.” The French overseas territory of New Caledonia has also built a solar energy plant that will power up to 750 homes, and is shaped like a heart. The “Heart of Caledonia” is visible from the sky.

With President Obama calling climate change an, “urgent and pressing matter,” Americans are becoming more interested in saving energy for economic and environmental reasons.  The kilowatt-hour cost of solar power is going down, and the price of fossil fuels is going up. Individuals in warm, flat areas already have incentives to install solar panels, and much progress has been made on an individual scale. However, for the growth of the solar industry in the U.S. to continue, government support is absolutely critical. The kinds of innovative, large-scale solar projects seen in Germany, Japan, and India will not happen on the level of the individual American household. If solar power is to be a widespread and competitive energy source within the United States, large-scale collaboration among government, industry, and constituents must occur sooner rather than later. In doing so, America must look to countries like Germany, Japan, and India for the right technology, collaboration, and inspiration.