Conventional thinking on solar energy has always said “find a way to connect it to the power grid.” There are many reasons behind this thinking:
· Solar is considered a clean resource, while fossil fuels are not, because sunlight can produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gasses and air pollutants
· Sunlight bathes us in far more energy than we need or can use. Energy from sunlight is virtually unlimited when we compare the total power needs of humans (16 trillion watts today, growing to 20 trillion watts by 2020) with the 120,000 trillion watts that the sun deposits on Earth’s landmass. In fact, it is projected that with our existing photovoltaic (PV) technology, a square array of PV cells 160 kilometers (100 miles) on each side would, when placed in the Southwest dessert (that receives an average of 6 kilowatt-hours of solar energy per square meter per day) be sufficient to meet ALL current US demand. One proposal estimates that a facility costing around $400 billion could deliver two-thirds of US electricity demand
Solar, without government intervention, is the most expensive source of electric power except in a few countries where electric rates are high. In the US, because solar costs several times more than natural gas and oil, solar currently supplies less than one percent of US electricity needs.
Also, the sun does not always shine or shine so bright. Thus the rate at which sunlight produces electricity is for the most part unpredictable and can vary over time. Incorporating substantially more fluctuating energy sources into the power grid require designing a new system (and specialized controls) that successfully integrates variable loads (renewable energy) and more predictable loads (fossil fuels).
Sunlight falls everywhere on Earth and only differs in intensity in different places and at different times of a day. This feature, the ability to blanket the Earth, is the defining attribute of solar energy and is the attribute to focus on to develop Solar as an energy source.
Energy demands of the devices we carry and the transports that carry us, increasingly require an electricity-supply system to support a broadly dispersed energy demand footprint. Sunlight has the potential to satisfy this new energy demand footprint in much the same manner that wireless communications satisfy the content demand footprint that is increasingly enveloping the whole world. A few representative off-grid developments include:
· The SOLAR IMPULSE Project (http://www.solarimpulse.com/) – Aims to develop a solar-powered airplane that weighs no more than an average car and will circumnavigate the globe in 2012.
· The PLANET SOLAR Project (http://www.planetsolar.org) – The goal is to navigate around the world at an average speed of 7.5 knots in a solar-powered boat .
· The Portable Light Project (http://portablelight.org/) is bringing flexible photovoltaics into fabricated products that can be integrated into blankets, handbags, or other useful items to provide a small amount of energy to charge a cell phone or provide lighting for rural villagers without access to power grids
· Cooking with Sunlight (www.solarcookers.org) reduces air pollution and frees women and children from the burdens of gathering firewood and carrying it for miles.
Supporting a broadly dispersed energy demand footprint is the ‘off-grid’ application that can bring solar power into its own niche without government intervention. Initially, this “off-grid” solar niche may not be as large or lucrative as the potential for an on-grid connection. Oftentimes it is better to have a grape all to yourself rather than have a tiny piece of a watermelon.