We are now in a very dangerous period in the earth's history. We continue burning deadly fossil fuels even though we know better. Every day, the earth pulls an unbelievable supply of solar energy. The sun is a fusion reactor that has been burning over four billion years. It produces enough energy in one minute to supply the world's energy needs for one year. In one day, it provides more energy than our current population would consume in 27 years. In fact, "The amount of solar radiation striking the earth over a three-day period is equivalent to the energy stored in all fossil energy sources."
Solar energy is a free, inexhaustible resource, yet harnessing it is a somewhat new idea. The ability to use solar power for heat was the first major discovery. A Swiss scientist, Horace de Saussure, developed the first thermal solar collector in 1767, which was later used to heat water and heat food. The first commercial patent for a solar water heater went to Clarence Kemp of the US in 1891. This system was purchased by two California executives and installed in one-third of the homes in Pasadena by 1897.
Generating electricity from the sun was the second discovery. In 1839 a French physicist named Edmund Becquerel discovered that the sun's energy could produce a "photovoltaic effect" (photo = light, voltaic = electrical potential). In the 1880s, selenium photovoltaic (PV) cells were designed that could transform light into electricity with one to two percent efficiency ("the efficiency of a solar cell is the percentage of available sunlight converted by the photovoltaic cell into electricity"), but how the conversion occurred was not well understood. Photovoltaic power, therefore "remained a curiosity for many years, since it was very inefficient at turning sunlight into electricity." It was not until Albert Einstein proposed an answer for the "photoelectric effect" in the early 1900s, for which he won a Nobel Prize, that people began to recognize the related photovoltaic effect.
Solar power has always had great potential, but it was left dormant when fossil fuels were cheaper and more readily available. For instance, the US Department of Energy funded the installation and testing of over 3,000 PV systems during the 1973-1974 oil embargo. By the late 1970s, energy companies and government agencies had invested in the PV industry, and "a tremendous acceleration in module development took place." Solar energy improvements were again sought during the Gulf War in the 1990s.
There are several benefits of photovoltaic solar power that make it one of the most promising renewable energy sources in the world. Solar is non-polluting, has no moving parts that can break down, needs little maintenance and no supervision, and has a life of 20-30 years with extremely low operating costs. Remote areas can create their own supply of electricity by building a solar power system. Solar power generators are distributed to homes, schools, or businesses, where their assembly requires no extra construction or land area and their function is safe and quiet. As communities grow, more solar energy space can be added, thereby allowing power generation to keep up with growing needs without having to overbuild production capacity as is often the case with common large scale power systems.
Compare those features to those of coal, oil, gas, or nuclear power, and the choice is easy. Solar energy technologies offer a clean, a renewable and domestic energy source that is affordable and safe for the earth.
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