Feature Report: Solar, an Energy of the Future

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Solar, a Boundless, Universally Accessible Energy Source

Both photovoltaic solar and solar thermal energy are remarkable in that they can be produced and consumed as needed, by anyone, rich or poor, and anywhere, in remote areas and city centers. The boundless and universally accessible nature of solar energy guarantees it a special place in the new energy uses of the future.

Solar energy is available to everyone. © THINKSTOCK

The worldwide growth of solar energy is driven not only by large powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... generation plants, but also by individual and local use.

In emerging economies that lack energy infrastructures and power grids, it offers isolated inhabitants simple, stand-alone power solutions. In industrialized countries, it is seen as a supplementary source of energy for households, generating savings when consumed locally and income when fed into the power grid.

Uses of Solar Thermal and Photovoltaic Solar Energy

Collecting the Sun's heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... using "black bodies" is the most direct way solar energy can be utilized. By converting sunlight into heat, solar thermal collectors can power equipment such as home solar water heaters.

5 square meters, the surface area of collectors can provide hot water for a family of four

At France’s latitude, three to five square meters of collectors are enough to produce sufficient hot water at temperatures of 50°C to 60°C and meet 40 to 80% of a family of four’s hot water needs. Combined solar systems comprise a solar water heater and a heating system, often underfloor heating to 25°C. One square meter of collectors is required for 10 square meters of living space.

As the cost of photovoltaic panels falls, their individual or local use is becoming increasingly widespread. Photovoltaic panels, which collect sunlight to convert into electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor..., are integrated into or installed on the roofs of houses, apartment and office buildings, and farm buildings. The energy produced is used to meet local needs or fed into the power grid.

As well as being used for purely residential purposes, photovoltaic systems can provide power in remote locations, such as mountain shelters or ships sailing at sea, and to urban facilities such as radio relays and beacons. It is also a “portable“ energy that can be used for small electronic devices, as well as having a wide array of more industrial applications that include powering satellites or oil and gas production sites.

Solar, Access to Reliable Energy in Developing Countries

1.3 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity

Solar energy’s accessibility makes is an essential tool in developing countries, where 1.3 billion people do not have grid access. For these communities, stand-alone solar systems are one way of accessing electricity in rural areas.

They allow remote villages to benefit from groundwater pumping for drinking water and irrigation, telecommunications systems such as radio, television and cell phones, and appliances like refrigerators and sewing machines.

It can be very useful to combine solar with other sources of energy in countries that rely heavily on fuels to generate electricity. Using a solar-dieselDiesel is the name of an internal combustion engine that works by compression-ignition... hybrid lowers consumption and maintains generator availability. The cost of the solar installation is therefore offset in just a few years.

Own Consumption and Grid Integration in Developed Countries

In developed countries, the challenge is to move from a centralized system, where consumers occupy a passive role, to a system where consumers produce their own photovoltaic power and then use it for their own needs or feed it into the grid. In that way, there would be millions of producers and consumers supplying the power grid. 

For this to work, supply and demand have to be aligned at all times, using digital tools to reduce consumption for a certain period (demand response) or to suspend grid feed-in to avoid saturation. These smart grids transmit data in real time.


Delayed StorageProducing energy from sunlight involves many forms of delayed storage. At the most basic level, a home hot water heater heated by sunlight during the day will provide heat after dark. Shops or food industries with chillers can use the electricity produced in daylight to lower the temperature of their freezers and save electricity during peak evening hours.