‘I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ’til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.’
Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb (1847–1931)
What’s all this talk about the sun and its solar energy? Well, it’s rather important – it powers our oceans, drives the wind and warms our planet 24 hours a day. Pretty much everything depends on the sun for life – without it we would all be frozen out of existence.
The sun’s energy is totally renewable – that is, it never runs out (well it will in around 4 billion years so we’ve got a bit of time to prepare). Enough sunlight falls on our earth every hour to power us for a year. It’s the capture and storage of this energy that has been elusive. The capture and use of solar energy gives off almost no pollution. There is some in the manufacturing process but this is counterbalanced within the first two years of pollution free energy production – from then on you have clean energy.
We are finally starting to get serious about using it. The international solar industry has grown 100 times in the last ten years and is now turning over almost 100 billion dollars per year. This growth is great news for us because it means that costs are diving rapidly. In Australia solar costs have dropped by 50% in the last four years.
Solar energy (using photovoltaic panels or PV) has dropped to the same cost as buying energy from the grid for 70% of Australians. We are still not there in Tassie, Victoria and the ACT. We will have to wait until 2015. So apart from the upfront cost there is nothing to stop us from paying less for our power bills forever.
Last month we were chatting with a bloke about solar energy. He had just installed a solar unit on his roof and a new granite kitchen for his missus during some renovations. Both new additions cost around $10,000 each. He said everyone asked him, ‘when will the solar panels pay you back?’ His answer was, ‘every day.’ The granite bench tops wouldn’t be worth a pinch of salt the minute they were installed. Solar panels reduce the cost of running your house for their entire life.
The sun shines strongest when we need power most – on the stinking hot days when we hide inside and dive for the remote to crank up the air con. What could make more sense?
Strangely our Federal and State governments seem determined to wind back their support of solar because the schemes are just, ’too popular.’ Their support of the fossil fuel industry continues to run into the billions of dollars every year. Around 12 Billion dollars at last count.
It’s time to get serious about solar! When you look at a solar map of the world (the best places are marked with red and the worst with blue) Australia stands out like a throbbing pimple – second only to the Sahara Desert. The opportunity for us to develop and export solar to the world is matched only by our inability to get our act together. There’s nothing like the sun.
But the sun doesn’t shine all the time, so what happens then? Well, there are two major developments on this front. One is molten salts that store the solar energy as heat for use at night or on cloudy days. The other more widely spread storage is solar pumped hydro. During the day water is pumped up a hill by solar energy then at night time the water is released spinning a turbine to create energy. All the water is pumped around in circles there is no need for a nearby water source.
We’ve been watching a brilliant documentary series called ‘Wonders of the Universe’ presented by the physicist Brian Cox. It’s one of those rare shows that leaves you in a perpetual state of awe. It’s simply impossible for our limited brain to grasp the enormity of the Universe that surrounds us.
There were a couple of Sun facts that we must share – the first one is a bit gory. If one were able to stand on its surface without being burnt all of our blood would be pulled down our body. It would gush out of our feet simply from its huge gravitational force. The second is that when the sun finally runs out of fuel and goes out (in around 4 billion years) it will ultimately turn into a huge diamond about the size of our earth. Wow!