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Can the world be powered by the Sun?


Thousands of years ago ancient religions were inspired by and worshipped the Sun as a sky God who offered solutions to all their problems and kept their world from eternal darkness. A couple of millenia later and the Sun could still bear the answers to some of our most pressing problems.


As a result of human greed and avarice, and in our eagerness to continue to consume the earth’s finite non-renewable resources, we could eventually land ourselves in some serious trouble if we don’t clean up our act and change our ways. It is therefore in our best interests to seek out and use more sustainable means of subsistence, and we can start to do this by recognizing the amazing potential that the Sun has as a renewable resource to solve our energy issues with 5 new technologies currently emerging in the field of solar sciences:

1) Solar-powered cars

It may soon be possible to power cars by only using the rays of the sun. For instance, cars such as the lightyearone could be hitting the roads as soon as 2019. These cars boast that it will be able to travel months without charging and has a 400-800km range of distance. Also, whereas most solar-cars have solar panels installed on the roof, this car promises to be completely solar-driven which will greatly rev up the potential horsepower for solar cars in the near future.

2) Advances in solar technology

Graphene has often been described as a “wonder material” that has noticeable superconductive properties. Graphene is therefore considered to be the next best material to use to create solar panels as it’s conductive properties far excel its silicon counterpart. However, because graphene is so good at collecting ions, it is very difficult for graphene to hold onto its charge which is why scientist are currently looking into less conductive graphene variants such as graphene oxide which will allow graphene to hold its charge for longer.

3) How do we power the world on solar energy?

The US department of energy claims that in one hour more energy hits the face of the earth from the sun than humanity uses in an entire year. Also according to the International Renewable Energy Agency by merely doubling the amount of energy that is produced by solar power we could save 4.2 trillion dollars of debt each year. So how much space will it take to power the entire world with solar panels? Well cities like Moscow would only require 20% of their space to provide enough power to its population of 12 million people. However cities such as New York would require slightly more solar energy as the people use more energy on average, so 27% of the municipal area would be required to give energy to 8 million people.

4) Solar paint

As already mentioned graphene displays some considerable potential for being used in solar panels. However, graphene could also be found in the paints of the future too. Hence, because graphene has superconductive photovoltaic properties it is thought that in the future a graphene-based paint could be manufactured that allows us to harness the energy of the sun. Moreover, graphene also boasts potentially anti-bacterial properties, is super strong due to its hexagonal lattice, is scratch resistant, is antioxidant and anti-rust, could have anti-fog properties, and is also able to block harmful cancer causing UV rays from entering our homes.

5) Perovskite and giant magnetoresistance

Perovskite has an orthorhombic structure which contains three axes unequal in length but all intersecting at perpendicular right angles. This material has many potential uses such as more efficient conductivity, photovoltaic properties and giant magnetoresistance. Interestingly giant magnetoresistance involves the use of internal and external magnetic spheres which run parallel to one another. Parallel magnetic fields have then been found to reduce the scattering of electrons over a material, as although in most ferrous materials electrons generally travel straight down a wire, electrons do so in different directions that do not minimize the route travelled from a to b. However with the use of giant magnetoresistance the electrons will travel in a straighter line and are therefore less prone to scattering which wastes less energy as a result.

Morgan Franklin's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 23, 2018 10:24 pm GMT

Morgan, the short answer is "No, the world can't be powered by the sun."

A foundation in thermodynamics is helpful for understanding why, but it boils down to this: solar energy reaching the Earth is tens of thousands of times more diffuse than the sources of energy we use to power our cars and provide us with electricity on demand. There's more than enough total energy from the sun to power civilization, but it's spread over 100 million square miles at any given moment, and all but a tiny percentage is radiated back to space shortly after it arrives. Gone, forever.

Think of it this way: you're in the desert, in desperate need of water. Someone arrives with a gallon jug full of it, but (cruelly) scatters it about on the ground, allowing you to scoop up only a few precious drops before the rest of it evaporates into the air.

Entrepreneurs willing to exploit the public's unfamiliarity with energy for profit aren't limited to startups like "lightyearone". The year I bought my second electric car, a Nissan LEAF, a solar panel attached to the roof was available as part of a $950 options package. If left in bright sunlight all day long, it could power the car's radio for 3-4 hours - but I have no doubt there were LEAF owners who paid $950 thinking their solar panel would allow them to drive around all day powered by sunlight. It would never gather enough energy to budge the car from a resting stop.

For a more technical explanation of why the world can't be powered by the sun, see: Then challenge those who tell you their solar panels are making the world a better place - they're either uninformed, or con-artists.



Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Aug 23, 2018 4:15 am GMT

Aside from the diffuse nature of solar energy mentioned by Bob above, the other well-known issue is intermittency. Powering the world by the sun will allow probably about a quarter of the produced solar power to be consumed directly. The remaining three quarters will have to be cycled through some sort of storage - a lot of which will need to be stored for weeks or months due to long-term cloudy spells and large seasonal changes in solar irradiance. Aside from the conversion losses associated with this energy storage and redeployment, all of this capacity will be used at capacity factors around 20%, making it very expensive. 

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on Aug 23, 2018 2:17 pm GMT

The notion that solar energy is diffuse is a red herring. The heat accumulates in the tropics and dissipates at the poles. Enough of it accumulates at the surface to produce hurricanes that release as much as 600 terawatts in a single storm. Most of this is in the form of the latent heat of evaporation. The same thing happens with heat pipe OTEC, which moves the heat to deep water instead of towards the poles. The total heat load of global warming is only slightly more than the heat of a single large storm and moved to 1000 meters is no longer an environmental threat. Furthermore intermittence is irrevelant to the the thermal stratification of the ocean.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 23, 2018 10:38 pm GMT

Actually Jim, your scenario is a perfect example of diffuse energy being useless for powering civilization. OTEC requires huge structures to be built and maintained in one of the most punishing environments on earth. Every megawatt-scale prototype to date has either been destroyed by weather or abandoned, presumably because electricity generated in the middle of the ocean is too far away to be much good to anyone.

In 1979, Jimmy Carter committed the US to a production goal of 10,000 MW of electricity from OTEC systems by 1999. His vision fared even worse than his prediction for solar, wasting $260 million of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it.

No more time to waste chasing unicorns.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on Aug 24, 2018 8:35 am GMT

The middle of the Pacific is a heck of a lot closer to the energy hungry markets of the Far East than the LNG that industry wants to ship from North America.

The electricity will be converted to hydrogen or ammonia for transport.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 24, 2018 5:42 pm GMT

Last night about 2:30AM we lost power in a storm so I drove to town. Driving home about 4:30AM I saw the electric repair crew working up the pole in the rain. The power was restored about 5AM and life continued.

Jim, if you have something besides theory based on theory based on criticism the world can't wait to see it.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 23, 2018 9:06 am GMT

Here is a biomass gasification link I recently found on TEC

If you want to understand solar energy storage chemistry, agriculture must be considered. The usual "thermodynamics" pundits never mention nuclear fission and coal oxidation don't make electric power, they make heat. Phase transitions between liquid and gas water do the work.

You might consider fiberglass roofing solar accumulators and solar powered gasification of biomass. Fiber optics, biofuel, and agriculture are here to stay.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Aug 28, 2018 8:30 pm GMT

Well the question is neither the space needed to produce solar power, nor the way how to produce it - solar modules of today are already good enough in this, and there is more than enough space, the question is simply if we expand grids enough to do their job.

People in the US have the tendency to forget about grids, and to forget that the european, asian, and most of Africa are already interlinked, but need to become stronger. And they tend to forget that the lates 12 GW HVDC Power line is already long enough as a single system to link ireland with canada or brasil with west Africa.

The chinese gouvernment thinks different about the topic, preparing to interlink the globe. If we don't do it before them.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Aug 31, 2018 12:32 pm GMT

Thanks for the interesting view on solar developments.

Wind is due to solar radiation.
NL (17million on 40,000Km²) has more than enough wind & solar to produce all energy it consumes nowadays.

For those who don't like the changed view (wind turbines, rooftop solar):
NL has with 57,000km² a large enough part of the N.Sea to produce 10 times the electricity we consume...

10MW offshore wind turbines operate with CF's>50% (16MW is in the pipeline, those will have CF's >60% because they are higher). 
If we place one 10MW wind turbine per km² sea, and leave 50% open for other purposes, our part of the sea will produce 1200TWh/a..
Our electricity consumption is 120TWh/a... 

Offshore wind is now one of the cheapest renewable...

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