The September issue of National Geographic has a terrific set of articles on solar. “Plugging Into the Sun. Sunlight bathes us in far more energy than we could ever need—if we could just catch enough” by George Johnson is an in-depth look at the capabilities of solar to light up the world, historic and scientific information and why Europe is so far ahead of the U.S. “Can Solar Save Us?” by Chris Carroll is an essay worth visiting. The articles are supplemented by an excellent photo gallery and several renewable energy graphs.
With a new administration in Washington promising to take on global warming and loosen the grip of foreign oil, solar energy finally may be coming of age. Last year oil prices spiked to more than $140 a barrel before plunging along with the economy—a reminder of the dangers of tying the future to something as unpredictable as oil. Washington, confronting the worst recession since the 1930s, is underwriting massive projects to overhaul the country’s infrastructure, including its energy supply. In his inaugural address President Barack Obama promised to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” His 2010 budget called for doubling the country’s renewable energy capacity in three years. Wind turbines and biofuels will be important contributors. But no form of energy is more abundant than the sun.
“If we talk about geothermal or wind, all these other sources of renewable energy are limited in their quantity,” Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, in Freiburg, Germany, told me last fall. “The total power needs of the humans on Earth is approximately 16 terawatts,” he said. (A terawatt is a trillion watts.) “In the year 2020 it is expected to grow to 20 terawatts. The sunshine on the solid part of the Earth is 120,000 terawatts. From this perspective, energy from the sun is virtually unlimited.”