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Is solar energy renewable?

July 17, 2021

The historical significance of energy.

Historically, human societies have evolved with emerging innovations.

These transformations take generations, if not centuries, to develop and mature, to become a standard staple in the lives of societies, generally divided into three major pivotal moments in the history of humanity.

The first breakthrough came in Britain between 1716 and 1820. It was considered a huge economic breakthrough followed by the dawn of the first industrial era, primarily based on coal combustion.

Fast forward to the second industrial revolution, which began in the United States between 1870 and 1900 and heavily relied on oil combustion from fossil fuel reservoirs.

Solar Energy in the third Industrial Era?

The modern-day third industrial revolution, which we are currently living through, has recently undergone a split between renewable versus non-renewable energy sources.

Although non-renewable energy sources still dominate in terms of their utilization at around 97% of the global energy consumption, the worldwide awareness on the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and human health has made this large percentage factor a pressing issue. This took on a worldwide consensus after the signing of an international treaty for climate change that took place in 2015 in Paris.

Therefore, it is safe to predict that the next big leap will be towards energy efficiency alternatives, which raises the question: Is Solar Energy – which falls into the category of renewable energy sources – that renewable?

In fact, there is no simple answer to this question. The modern energy infrastructure is greatly reliant on non-renewable energy sources and will require a lot of effort, awareness and changes to the current industrial system to evaluate the true potential of Solar energy.

According to estimates of the energy mix within the global energy consumption, solar energy sources are actually a key factor in the move towards renewable sources and have great potential once properly adopted, specifically by large corporations and utilities.

Solar Energy (Technically)

Technically, renewable solar energy is the process of producing energy from the sun’s light and heat, sing only a range of methodologies such as solar heating, photovoltaic solar and concentrated solar energy. Unlike conventional fossil fuels, solar power is a source of energy that is both durable and infinite.

To understand the underlying factors such as economic, political, innovative and even social, we first need to understand what scientists mean by renewable energy and how solar-based sources fall into that category?

Solar energy is energy generated from the Sun.

Sunlight is a non-depleting, sustainable and carbon-neutral energy source. Each hour, enough solar energy hits the earth to fulfill the world’s current electricity demand. The sun’s energy can be harnessed and generated for a variety of reasons, including corporate, commercial and residential.

As the method involved in producing energy from the sun is straightforward and quite simple, it is highly efficient and does not harm the environment.

Evidence also suggests that solar energy will become more cost-efficient in the coming years, and the technology will develop more solutions and product options.

International estimates indicate that by 2050, worldwide energy demand is expected to double, and more than triple by the end of the century, given the current growing population expectations. Current energy systems and means of production will not be able to meet this growing demand, if developed and expanded in standard methods.

Why is there a need for sustainable energy alternatives?

The demand and cost of energy have a major effect on the worldwide growth of every economic and social sector. Sustainable energy supplies are inextricably linked to world stability, economic prosperity and personal quality of life.

One of the pressing challenges for the coming quarter century is identifying the energy solutions that are capable of meeting the world’s growing energy demand.

The gravity of this issue, in addition to the need to solve the operational and infrastructural requirements and details, requires a unified global effort that leverages our most sophisticated scientific and technological resources.

One of society’s daunting challenges is securing adequate generation of renewable energy. Solar power contributed less than 0.1 percent of the world power in 2001, and solar fuel extracted from modern (sustainable) bioenergy supplied about 1.5 % of energy.

The enormous gap between our current use of solar energy and its huge untapped possibilities poses a significant challenge. One major factor leading to a slow shift toward renewable solar alternatives is the complex and long process in research and development.

However, research suggests that sunlight offers a clear alternative to our overall need for clean, affordable energy sources. It is openly accessible, devoid of political instability, and presents no harm to the environment or to human health.

Is Solar as Renewable as they say it is?

To answer this plain yet simple question, one needs to understand that we live in a different world from that of our ancestors or from generations before. 

Globalization and international business affairs have developed a very interdependent worldwide and economic structure, with a slow yet progressive cultural and social diversity.

The interdependence of nations on each other has also been accompanied by a global awareness and shared stance to protect the earth and the environment, mainly thanks to modern educational systems and the internet.

This stance has influenced policymakers, corporates and scientists to change how they think, act and react to new alternatives. In 2016 alone, big oil industries invested more than a billion dollars to influence, market and advertise alternative energy sources.

Oil companies are investing in schemes and research to seek clean energy awareness can sound very tricky and self-harmful, however, it makes a lot of sense to know that these big oil giants profited 900 billion dollars from renewable energy sources.

And in 2019, they invested 3% of their 115 billion dollar capital investment in low carbon alternatives. This may suggest that a power grid based on renewables is not applicable or too costly as it would badly affect the market, however, the evidence suggests otherwise.

This was a very pivotal movement as wind and solar energy-based sources skyrocketed in production, research, and marketing. Ironically, solar energy became more reasonable and made more economic sense than operating fossil fuel sources. To give some perspective, in 1977, the price of a single photovoltaic cell for Solar Panels was 76$, now it is only 50 cents.

These trends and economic benefits might not be interesting for average end-users, but will definitely grab the attention of large companies, as the case with Big Oil Companies.

It is safe to say that solar energy, like any of its counterpart energy alternatives, is economic and makes financial sense and can be applied globally, if it serves the interests of big companies, specifically as their business models are based on fossil fuel sources. 

The shift towards solar can be the result of technology innovation, but can also be due to public expectations from companies to drive this shift.

Solar energy on its own is actually a highly renewable source, until it interfaces with human-made infrastructure and policies that influence the way it is manufactured, delivered or generally utilized!

The process of capturing the sunlight and running a motor is a set of complex mechanics of interdependent components that make any energy either renewable or non-renewable. But compared to traditional energy consumption, such as fossil fuels, solar has a much higher potential to go in the right direction.

That is why developed economies are already planning multi billion-dollar investments in infrastructure to boost solar energy production and solar as an overall renewable source.

This shift is interesting to put into perspective, with Britain leading the world to rely on coal consumption during the first industrial revolution, the United States spent heavily on the fossil fuel Industry, and nowadays, China is the leading producer and supplier of Solar based energy equipment.

Germany, is a worldwide market leader in the development, research and wide scale implementation of solar energy alternatives. With these massive shifts rapidly happening, we can remain hopeful for the development of solar.

Nevertheless, the common perception about solar as a renewable energy source is based not only on rumours that circulate and lack scientific awareness, but more importantly on intensive scientific research.

Many people worry about the impact of solar panel manufacturing which,like any other production line, requires a lot of material and a large workforce to produce huge quantities of photovoltaic panels. This does mean that renewable energy has some ecological consequences, however, the effect is overshadowed in proportion to the advantages of solar panels’ zero-emissions energy.

Studies show that it only takes a few years for a solar array to make up for the damage from its manufacturing. However, these gaps should be manageable with more awareness on applying best practices.

For the time being, one must remain realistic and seek more, research more and think of means to reduce personal and corporate energy consumption and equally find means to increase the solar energy in the global energy mix.

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