Harvesting The Sun
In 1954, The New York Times declared that the debut of the Bell 'solar battery' might mark
"...the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realisation of one of mankind's most cherished dreams - the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilisation."
It's now 2021, and it seems that new era may finally be here. THANK GOODNESS. Solar energy makes so much sense! The sun shines every day (though you could plausibly deny that in some places in Northern Europe), and it provides a virtually unlimited, clean and free fuel at a price that never changes.
And yet mankind is all, "NOPE, let's drill down into the centre of the Earth and pump out some gloopy black oil to burn. THAT makes way more sense than all this free, clean solar energy."
But hey, we're finally getting there. In terms of solutions to our climate crisis, solar farms are one of the most powerful - Drawdown ranks it #8 out of 80. Solar farms operate like conventional power plants in the amount of electricity they produce, but their emissions are drastically different. When their entire life cycle is taken into account, solar farms curtail 94% of the carbon emissions that coal plants emit.
Solar farms started popping up in the early 1980s and can be found in deserts, on military bases, atop closed landfills, and even floating on reservoirs. That last spot is made doubly cool by the fact that the panels also reduce evaporation of the water in those reservoirs.
Not only is solar incredibly clean, but informed predictions about the cost and growth of solar PV indicate that it will soon become the least expensive energy in the world.
So what's the drawback?
Well, no matter where solar panels are placed, they are subject to the variable nature of solar radiation. It's also misaligned with electricity use - solar energy peaks at midday while demand for electricity peaks a few hours later.
But there's a simple fix - complementary renewables. Geothermal and wind have different rhythms from the sun - geothermal is constant and wind picks up at night. Additionally, as energy storage becomes more flexible and intelligent, grids can manage the variability of production from PV farms.
I've never seen a solar farm, but we do have solar panels on the roof of our house. Stay tuned for my post on those...