Why Solar Energy is the Key to Solving the World’s Most Vexing Problems
The world is about to solve many problems that have confounded humans for millennia and solar energy solutions are at the core of most of them.
Why is solar suddenly hot?
More free solar energy falls to Earth each day than we need to power all of the worlds’ devices, but until recently, we have not been able to capture that energy at prices that make it practical. That has changed in the last several years as the price of solar panels have dropped and the efficiency of the panels has increased. In fact, scientists in Australia just invented a cell that is 34.5% efficient. But energy efficiency is improving on all fronts. Improvements in the ability to get huge amounts of natural gas from shale have impacted global oil markets by displacing the need for oil, thus decreasing global oil prices. Wind and wave power prices are also declining as they become more efficient, and significant advances are also being made in battery storage technology.
Why is the price of energy so important?
Energy is one of the main inputs costs for virtually all manufactured goods. As the price of energy falls, manufacturing costs decline and the difference can be reinvested to make plants more efficient or can be passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices.
Energy is also a significant cost for households in the form of gasoline, heating, cooling and lighting. As energy costs decline, households have more money to spend, save or invest, boosting the overall economy.
Energy is the First Domino
Clean water has been a given in developed countries, but in developing countries, clean water is still a luxury. Most countries have access to water in one form or another, but it is not potable. The most significant cost in making it potable through either filtration or desalinization, is energy. As energy costs fall dramatically over the next decade, clean water can be a given in all countries for all people.
Water, then Food
Once we have clean water everywhere, we will be able to solve the food crisis. With access to clean water, we will be able to grow enough food to feed the world. In the past, we needed arable land and huge amounts of water. In fact, agriculture currently uses 70% of the fresh water on the planet. Hydroponics (growing food in water) uses just 30% of the water required for traditional agriculture. Aeroponics (growing food in air and spraying it with water and nutrients) uses just 30% of the water required for hydroponics. This is a quantum leap in efficiency that will enable us to feed the planet at lower costs (and environmental impact) than ever before.
But wait…there is more!
Aeroponics can be done indoors, which means that we can grow our food where and when it is needed rather than trucking it for hundreds or thousands of miles. What is required to make aeroponics efficient and cost effective? You guessed it…low cost energy for heat and lighting.
Health, brought to you by Bill and Melinda
So, now that we have everyone fed and drinking clean water, what is the next big problem we need to solve? Sanitation. There is no bigger threat to health on the planet than basic sanitation. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have sponsored a competition to reinvent the toilet for the 21st Century with off the shelf parts at the lowest possible cost. The winners have invented a toilet that uses the energy in the feces to burn the waste and produce table salt, water, fertilizer and enough excess energy to power a cell phone.
Energy is at the core of each of these breakthroughs and is the first domino in a series of dominos that will change living standards for everyone on the planet. And that should make you smile every time you look up and see the gifts being showered on you daily, courtesy of the sun.