Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Things solar and wind need to improve

Solar and wind energy are very popular these days. Not only are these two renewable energy sources environmentally friendly and can help against climate change, they also have excellent potential and can lead to creation of many new jobs for many people all over the world.

However, there are still many things that need to be improved prior to replacing fossil fuels fired power plants with solar panels and wind turbines. This however, should not come as a surprise because fossil fuels have long tradition and history of use behind them while solar and wind power technologies have only started their development few decades ago, and are yet to mature from the technological point of view.

First of all, wind and solar power technologies need to become cheaper. Even despite their surge in popularity wind turbines and solar panels still present a rather costly energy option for many homeowners, many of which are still not willing to pay higher price, even despite the positive environmental impact in form of less greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar panels and wind turbines also need to become lot more efficient because lot of energy gets wasted in the process of their conversion to electricity. The average solar panels reach efficiency levels of 15-18% and the situation is not much better with wind turbines either. The science is working hard to create more efficient solar panels and wind turbines but there is sadly still not a commercially viable solution that would solve this efficiency issue.
Contrary to conventional scientific wisdom, the key to solar cell efficiency is not absorbing more photons but emitting more photons. (Image courtesy of DOE NREL).
Since solar and wind are not available all day long (sun does not shine all day long and wind does not blow all the time) they belong to so called „intermittent“ energy sources, meaning they require extra energy storage solution in order to reliably deliver power 24-7. The science is still looking for cheap and highly efficient energy storage solutions for these two sources, and though there have been many proposed solutions none of them has reached the commercial level that could provide cost-competitiveness on global scale.

Solar power plants require lot of water for cooling purposes and this is also something that future solar power technologies will have to find better solution for, especially because water could soon become very scarce resource in many parts of the world.

Wind turbines can kill birds if not equipped with adequate radars and can also create noise pollution in nearby area.

As you can see from the facts stated above wind and solar are far from being the perfect energy sources, at least at the current stage of their technological development. Still, they are definitely wiser option when compared to currently dominant fossil fuels, because many environmental issues (such as climate change) that present big threat to the future of humanity are directly connected with fossil fuels burning.

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