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October 20, 2011 / Mike Piskur

The inevitability of solar energy

Early human beings went to sleep at night fearful that the sun might not ever return. As the sky brightened each morning, they must have felt a profound sense of relief at the prospect of at least one more day of light and warmth. Modern humans are fortunate to live in an era when the sun’s daily return is a given. Thanks to centuries of scientific discovery, we know, in as much as we can know anything, that the sky will grow light in the morning and dark in evening every day that we are alive. Nothing is more certain.

From The Guardian

Similarly, we know that all life on earth depends on the sun. Early humans understood this on some level, which explains, at least partially, our innate fear of the dark and the sun’s central role in early mythology. Luckily, barring nuclear winter, a major asteroid strike, or some other cataclysmic event, the earth’s inhabitants can count on the sun to appear to rise and set, like clockwork, for at least the next several billion years.

Before humans figured out how to convert fossil fuels into energy on a wide scale, the sun filled most of our energy needs. Wind and water mills played their part, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we were able to escape the sun’s daily and seasonal cycles. Coal, oil, and natural gas are millions of years of solar energy compressed into easy-to-use formats. When we burn these substances we are accelerating the pace of our own progress. This bounty of energy brought the amazing gains in material wealth, knowledge, and opportunity that defined the twentieth century. It is no coincidence that population, income, and energy use all increased dramatically since 1900.

From WiredThe fossil energy era, however, is drawing to a close. If we aren’t yet in the final act, we soon will be. Climate change and the increased difficulty (and cost) of extracting fossil fuels make renewable sources of energy a necessity for meeting the needs of modern society, to say nothing of future generations. The transition from coal and oil to solar and wind has to happen, and the sun’s central role will drive this massive undertaking. The sun will be there, heating the planet and providing energy for all living things. Solar energy will be available. It is inevitable.

On the other hand, our ability to not only capture that energy and convert it into useful forms, but to do so on a large enough scale to replace fossil energy, is far from inevitable. It will take the concerted effort of millions of people, and the investment of billions (perhaps trillions) of dollars, to develop the necessary technologies, policies, and infrastructures. This transition requires major economic reorganization, political and social will, and a new environmental ethic.

Abundant and inexpensive fossil energy makes it easy to forget the extent to which everything depends on solar energy. For the billions of humans who take fossil energy for granted and do not produce their own food, the sun can become little more than nature’s tanning bed, a nuisance on hot summer days, and a reason to buy cool sunglasses. Humankind must embrace its heliocentric roots. The sun has and will continue to make all life on earth possible, so why do some humans insist on looking elsewhere for ways to power their homes, cars, and gadgets?

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2 Comments

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  1. Grayson Gill / Oct 30 2011 23:52

    Cant wait to see future post

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