What is the Future of Solar Energy?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

In the 21st century, solar power has already become part of daily life. From solar heated swimming pools to sun powered homes, there are many examples that demonstrate the useful application of the clean, safe, sustainable power of the sun. As concern grows about the effects of burning fossil fuels, and the possibility of exhausting non-renewable energy sources, the future of solar energy looks bright. As of 2013, the technology is not without its problems, and so far, applications have mostly been relatively small scale, but a great deal of research is going on in this area, and there have been a number of very promising developments.

An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.
An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.

Harnessing Solar Energy

The Sun is potentially a huge source of renewable, clean energy. Some estimate that sunlight could produce 10,000 times as much power as the Earth used at the turn of the 21st century. There are, however, major technological challenges to be met in harnessing that energy effectively. There are a number of different technologies available, and under development, that use sunlight to provide power.

Developments are being made for solar energy to become more commonplace in homes.
Developments are being made for solar energy to become more commonplace in homes.

Sunlight can be used simply to heat water which is then used to provide central heating for homes. Alternatively, it can be used to generate electricity using photovoltaic (PV) cells arranged on solar panels. A third method is to concentrate sunlight on a target to generate heat, which may be used directly for industrial purposes, or to provide electricity.

Solar energy technology has made considerable advancements in recent years.
Solar energy technology has made considerable advancements in recent years.

Solar Panels

These panels rely on the photoelectric effect, where certain substances produce a small electric current when exposed to light. Photovoltaic cells are constructed to exploit this effect, and solar panels consist of large arrays of these devices positioned to receive as much sunlight as possible. Together, they can generate significant amounts of electricity. Although, as of 2013, they are relatively inefficient, they normally have very low running and maintenance costs, and can be very effective in providing power for homes. A great deal of research is taking place into improving efficiency and constructing cells from cheaper materials.

Most solar panels consist of crystalline silicon PV cells, which are 14-16% efficient in converting sunlight into electricity. A number of alternatives, however, are under investigation. Thin film cells can be made from a variety of materials. Although these are currently less efficient than standard PV cells, they are lightweight, flexible, and cheaper to manufacture. Multijunction cells can achieve an efficiency of more than 43%. They are structured so that different parts of the cell are tuned to capture sunlight at specific wavelength ranges, rather than having a single receptor that misses a portion of the available energy.

Another promising area is the dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC), sometimes called the Gratzel cell, after Michael Gratzel, who first developed it in the 1990s. These use a dye to capture solar energy and produce a flow of electrons, which are replenished via a liquid electrolyte layer below. Although potentially cheap to produce, they are only about 12% efficient, and there are problems with durability that may affect commercial use. For example, the liquid can freeze in cold conditions, or expand when it is warm, and may leak. Researchers have developed a version of the cell in which the troublesome liquid electrolyte is replaced with a solid material, opening the way for cheap and durable solar panels.

In addition to the development of cheaper and more efficient photovoltaic cells, an important part of the future of solar energy lies in the construction of new buildings and the retrofitting of many older ones. Some experts predict that most, if not all, new buildings will have solar panels installed on roofs. Since these are also easily fitted, many older buildings may receive upgrades to run on power from the Sun. Experts and environmentalists hope that green-energy building will be encouraged by governments through generous tax incentives, exemptions and grants for alternative energy use.

Solar panels on a roof can, in some areas, provide all or most of a home’s energy needs. In cases where people live in multi-storey accommodation, however, the amount of roof space is very small compared to the number of homes. While small, individual, applications can take some of the strain off the electrical grid, if the Sun is to provide the power needs of cities and industries, its future must lie in large solar powered electricity generating stations.

The largest problem facing the harnessing of solar energy using PV cells is the space required to build the power plants. A plant is comprised of thousands of solar panels, not unlike those currently installed on alternative energy homes. Because of this, they require a consistently sunny area and a considerable amount of space. Currently, the one of the largest power stations in the world covers more than 10 square miles (16.9 km2) and creates enough electricity to run about 200,000 homes. Some experts suggest that to provide power for the entire United States, an area approximately 100 miles (160.9 km) per side would be required, probably somewhere in the desert climate of the American Southwest.

Alternatives to Solar Panels

A number of other possibilities exist for the large-scale harnessing of the Sun’s power. One example is concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. Rather than generating electricity directly, these concentrate sunlight to heat water, providing steam to drive a turbine that produces electricity just like a conventional power plant. They may consist of arrays of parabolic mirrors that focus sunlight on a linear tube filled with liquid. Alternatively, heat from the Sun may be focused by a parabolic mirror to heat a fluid that drives a Stirling engine, which provides the mechanical energy for electricity generation.

Another proven system is the “power tower,” in which an array of sun-tracking flat mirrors focuses heat from the Sun on a container of liquid that is used to provide steam for a generator. A number of plants are in operation, producing 10-20 megawatts of electricity. Future plants may deliver up to 200 megawatts.

The Future

One encouraging trend relating to the future of solar energy is that many of the world's greatest innovators are choosing to focus their talents and funds on improving alternative energy technology. Many award schemes — funded by various governments around the world — focus on providing solar power economically, and on a large scale. In many countries, citizens are given financial incentives for switching to “green” energy sources, and installing their own solar panels.

Although, as of 2013, there are many encouraging signs that governments are acknowledging the need for alternative energy sources, and promoting research into solar energy, the answer lies in part in the hands of the world's citizens. What ordinary citizens choose to buy and support will influence the trends of the future. By installing solar panels, donating to research organizations involved in alternative energies, taking a university degree in a related subject, and voting for measures promoting alternative energy development, anyone can have a say the future of solar energy.

Solar-powered buildings and homes can ease the burden put on electrical grids.
Solar-powered buildings and homes can ease the burden put on electrical grids.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


What's missing from this discussion is the huge profits solar companies and Wall Street are making on the installation of each system plus the 30 percent federal tax credit they also receive. The profit to the solar company per residential installation is $15,000 to $25,000 instead of $3,000 to $5,000.

The solar industry is turning into the next Enron.


I have been looking at leasing through solar city. I could install a 7kw system for about $15,000. It would save me about $200 per month (my last bill was $460). As price increases the savings will grow. One problem is we may sell in about five years, and there is a lot we could do with $15, 000. There are also issues with alignment issues. If the price were lower, it would be a no-brainer. The $15, 000 also includes a utility rebate.


What are people really doing about solar panels? Like how are they improving them?


Going solar makes both economical and environmental sense since there are many fantastic programs that cost little to nothing out of pocket. I could not be more thrilled with the engineering, construction installation and overall experience my family has enjoyed - not to mention the money we are saving each and every month.

Plus, knowing my home is now powered by the sun, with zero emissions and making this world a healthier for my kids is a great feeling. For anyone out there wondering if solar can help you, you owe to yourself to make a least one call.


Too bad solar isn't economical; we have a long way to go before solar makes sense. The payback on the investment is not there no matter how you run the numbers. Solar power is not free. A lot of money has to be spent to make it work and you get very little in return.


My plan is to open a business in every country of the world promoting the use of solar panels to create free electricity. Why put money in the big companies when that money belongs in our pocket.


Jessica: It’s not clear when you researched solar technologies for your article “What is the future of solar energy” but it appears that you have entirely failed to address the question. Developments in solar technologies have been numerous and significant in recent years.

The future for solar power is so much more than the first or second generation technologies that you describe. Check out the "Grätzel cell" for example, a solar cell that does not require direct sunlight, is far cheaper to manufacture, more efficient throughout the day and can be applied to glass and steel. Wow. This is the future. No ugly solar panels, no wasted land usage, and this is but one example of the future for solar power.

You talk of the individuals having the power to make a difference, and this is true to some extent, but you do the solar industry no favors by failing to adequately research your article. The future of solar is so much brighter than you portray here, and the impact that solar may have in the coming years could very well help to save this little planet of ours.


What makes the solar batteries so expensive?


i knew that solar energy would come in the world some way or the other. i can already see the future of solar energy where people are using everything which runs on solar, as the fossil fuels will become extinct forever.


The disadvantages are the amount of space it requires and the weather. But guess what? Even if it cannot cover the world, different places could use different renewable energy such as biomass energy, wind energy, tidal energy, etc.

We really need to stop the addiction to non renewable energy use such as gas, and oils. We can still use them but use them wisely but reducing the need.


wow i thought that solar energy didn't have much of a future but this could really help bring down bills and help solve some of the energy crisis and it helped on my own science project.


this is cool.


About how many solar panels would be required to power an airplane or submarine?


Sun power has been a hungry monster. Investment? More like a drain. Had enough of propping up a good idea, but the share price will probably turn as soon as I sell. Still love the idea, especially for hot places.


what are disadvantages of solar energy?


what about rotating cubes an an axis that compensates for the earths rotation to solve the footprint issue?


solar energy is cool.


I heart solar panels.


solar energy rules over all other energy.


solar panels rock!

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