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TJ Chambers
EGEE 101 H
3 April 2014
Reflective Essay 2

Solar Energy: The Energy of the Future
The most abundant energy source on Earth permeates all corners of the world and is provided at
no cost. This source does not release harmful emissions, nor is its future supply uncertain. Yet, even at a
time of heightened concern for global climate change and fears of fossil fuel availability, this source
remains largely untapped. This seemingly fictitious creation of mine is actually something we all know
very well and rely on every day sunlight, or to be more specific, solar energy.
Harnessing the power of sunlight and utilizing it for human needs is not a new technology by any
means. This form of electromagnetic radiation, emitted from the sun and reaching Earths atmosphere in
just over eight minutes, is essential to all life as it fuels the process of photosynthesis and therefore
provides humans with access to necessary nutrients and energy. Furthermore, as far back as the 7th
Century B.C. magnifying glass was used to ignite fires by concentrating the suns rays (History of Solar),
providing heat, light, and the means to cook meat. Romans utilized the suns energy to heat water in their
culturally important bathhouses around which civilization revolved for several centuries (History of
Solar). Indirectly, solar energy is responsible for the creation of fossil fuels (and wind power) upon which
society relies so heavily today (Renewable Sources). The most exciting aspect of sunlight, however, is
the ability to convert solar radiation into useable electrical energy. Developing this technology further
and raising awareness about its potential can help supplant our reliance on environmentally damaging
sources with uncertain futures like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.
Two methods currently exist to convert sunlight into electricity, with the first tracing its roots
back to 1839 and the French Physicist, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. He observed how when silver
chloride is exposed to light, it can generate an electrical current that flows through connected platinum
electrodes. This became known as the Photovoltaic Effect and states that when certain materials absorb
photons from incoming light, some electrons become excited and are released, producing a voltage
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(Renewable Resources). This underlying concept is what led to the experimentation with and
development of photovoltaic (or PV) cells.
A solar cell is essentially a sandwich consisting of two layers: the light absorbing layer and the
electrical current-carrying layer connected to an external circuit (National Research Council). The first
legitimate PV cell capable of powering small electrical equipment was developed by Bell Labs in 1954
(History of Solar). Soon thereafter, companies like Western Electric, Hoffman Electronics, and NASA
began to refine the technology, explore different material combinations for each layer, and improve the
conversion efficiency (History of Solar). With the launch of the Vangaurd I space satellite powered by
silicon solar cells and subsequent similarly designed satellites throughout the 1960s, the potential for solar
energy was becoming clearer. Not
long afterwards, PV as a viable
option to power buildings,
especially small residences, began
to be explored (History of Solar).
More recently, technological,
production, and distribution
advancements have led to far
more efficient, cheaper, and
readily available PV cells easily
integrated into the roof and other
surfaces of a structure (National
Research Council). These improvements coupled with the raised awareness of the need for renewable
energies paints a bright future of potential for photovoltaic panels.
Where as PV cells directly generate electricity from sunlight, the second method of conversion is
indirect, meaning that there is an extra, intermediary step involved. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is
divided into three primary layouts (parabolic troughs, power towers, and dish-Stirling engines), but all are
based off of the concept of using mirrors and lenses to focus and concentrate light in order to heat up a
liquid which then drives a turbine (Concentrating Solar Power). To work effectively, these systems
Figure 1: Solar Cell Efficiencies (National Research Council)
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require a location with high quality sun
exposure over long periods of time.
Consequently, this confines solar thermal
technology implementation in the United
States to the Southwest (National
Research Council). Additionally, unlike
solar cells which can be utilized on a
small, localized scale, CSP systems are
typically built on a large, regional scale over several acres of land (Concentrating Solar Power). This
means that there is a much larger upfront investment cost, but ultimately CSP will be the lowest cost solar
electricity at a utility scale (National Research Council).
Together, these two solar energy conversion methods have the ability to surpass coal, natural gas,
and nuclear power in the electricity generation market, one day completely replacing them altogether.
The sun radiates enough energy onto Earths surface every hour to meet the global energy demand for an
entire year (Solar Energy), so why not directly utilize it for our own good? Critics will raise doubts by
addressing the intermittent nature of solar energy, the lack of storage solutions, and necessary upgrades to
the power grid. These, however, are only minuscule obstacles that can be navigated much easier than
more relevant problems like global climate change and a looming energy crisis. Solar energy is clean
energy. Solar energy is free energy. Solar energy is the energy of the future.









Figure 2: CSP Configurations (National Research Council)
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Works Cited
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Technologies. Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS
Information Center. N.p., N.d. Web. 1 April 2014. <http://solareis.anl.gov/guide/solar/csp>.
The History of Solar. U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. N.p.,
2001. Web. 1 April 2014. <http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/solar_timeline.pdf>.
National Research Council. Electricity from Renewable Resources: Status, Prospects, and Impediments.
Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010. Print.
Renewable Sources: Solar. The National Academies: What You Need to Know About Energy. N.p.,
2014. Web. 29 March 2014. <http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/renewable-
sources/solar>.
"Solar Energy." National Geographic. N.p., 16 10 2013. Web. 4 Mar 2014. <http://
environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/solar-power-profile/?
rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_us_dr_w>.