Table of Contents
Unlike other planets in the solar system, the sun provides earth with just the right amount of sunlight to support life. In fact, the earth intercepts 173,000 terawatts (trillions of watts) of sunlight every day. In terms of solar energy, that’s 10,000 times more power than the planet’s current population uses! With that amount of energy reaching the earth on a daily basis, is it possible for our planet to be powered by all solar energy one day? As of today, two main types of methods are used to transform the sun’s power into electricity:
- Photovoltaic solar energy (solar PV panels), which uses the sun’s light.
- Solar thermal energy, which uses the sun’s heat.
How do solar PV modules work?
Solar modules are made up of several solar cells, which are typically made from silicon. These solar cells take in sunlight and transform it into direct current (DC) that then gets converted into the alternating current (AC). This is the electricity that is used to power homes and businesses. But the technology to take advantage of the sun’s power doesn’t end there.
What is solar thermal energy?
In this method, solar thermal collectors are used to absorb the heat from the sun. This is achieved by either flat plates or large mirrors, depending on the goal of the thermal collectors. Flat plates are used to produce either low or medium-temperature heat while large mirrors or lenses are used to produce high-temperature heat to convert into electricity.
|Low-temperature Collectors||<100°F (43°C)|
|Medium-temperature Collectors||212°-482°F (100°-250°C)|
|High-temperature Collectors||572°F (300°C)|
Low-temperature plates generate heat that stays below 110°F (43°C). This method is more likely to be used for residential amenities like heating a pool.
These flat plates range from 212°F-482°F (100°-250°C). Medium-temperature plates are used more in commercial settings, some of which their applications include pumping irrigation water or to remove excess salts or minerals from water.
This method requires large mirrors or lenses in order to concentrate the sun’s heat to reach high temperatures - up to 572°F (300°C). This heat is used to excite a transfer fluid like gas to then heat water to produce steam. The steam powers a turbine to generate electricity.
Is an all solar energy economy possible?
With many efforts in place to make solar energy accessible to more people - such as solar technological advances, solar tax credits and other policy incentives - the answer to the question of countries running 100% on solar energy is sort of. While solar energy is definitely leading the way in clean energy alternatives, a more feasible and far more likely answer to the question of, “can countries move away from fossil fuels?” is actually a combination of clean energy alternatives like solar, wind and hydro power, as well as initiatives like long duration storage. In this scenario, the answer to the question of a fossil fuel-free future is a resounding yes.
The Transition to 100% Renewable Energy
A recent examination of U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA) states conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and environmental justice groups COPAL in Minnesota, GreenRoots in Massachusetts, and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, found that with more ambitious green-energy goals, it’s possible for states to meet 100 percent of their renewable energy needs by the year 2035. While 2035 might seem to be in the not-so-distant future, this ambitious goal isn’t a stretch when you consider the growing number of states who are already committed to 100 percent renewable or carbon-free energy.
|California||100% carbon-free electricity by 2045|
|Colorado||100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 for Xcel Energy|
|Connecticut||100% carbon-free electricity by 2040|
|District of Columbia||100% renewable energy by 2032 through the RPS|
|Hawaii||100% renewable energy by 2045 through the RPS|
|Illinois||100% clean energy by 2050|
|Louisiana||Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050|
|Maine||100% clean energy by 2050|
|Maryland||Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045|
|Massachusetts||Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050|
|Michigan||Economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050|
|Nebraska||Net zero carbon emissions from generation resources by 2050 for Nebraska Public Power District and Omaha Public Power District; 2040 for Lincoln Electric System|
|Nevada||100% carbon-free electricty by 2050|
|New Jersey||100% carbon-free electricity by 2050|
|New Mexico||100% carbon-free electricity by 2045|
|New York||100% carbon-free electricty by 2040|
|North Carolina||Carbon neutrality in the electricity sector by 2050|
|Oregon||Greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 100% below baseline emissions by 2040|
|Puerto Rico||100% renewable energy for electricity by 2050|
|Rhode Island||100% renewable energy electricity by 2030|
|Virginia||100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 for Dominion Energy and 2050 for Appalachian Power Company|
|Washington||100% zero-emissions electricity by 2045|
|Wisconsin||100% carbon-free electricity by 2050|
Source: Clean Energy States Alliance
In their proposed revamp of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, their research found that coal generation basically disappears by the year 2040 and all solar energy grows almost ninefold in USCA states:
The Importance of Transitioning to 100% Renewable Energy
More than simply cleaning up the grid, the switch to 100 percent renewable energy will produce cleaner air, better health conditions and create jobs.
Better Air Quality for All
In UCS’ et al. new 100% RES model, not only did they find a significant reduction in the reliance on harmful fossil fuels, but they showed how that reduction directly impacts air quality. For example, they found that states who adopt the strengthened plan can lower their sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from power plant pollution by 88% and 77% respectively by 2040. What’s more, carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution would drop 58% of their 2020 levels by 2040.
In terms of health, the benefits of an accelerated plan to 100% renewable energy is a no brainer. Their study concluded that from 2022 to 2040 we would experience up to 13,000 fewer premature deaths, 140,000 fewer asthma attacks and 700,000 fewer missed work days because of sickness. To put our money where our mouth is, a healthy population is valued at a whopping $280 billion back into the economy over the next two decades.
Clean Energy Job Creation
With an economy in the midst of rebounding from a recent pandemic, new job creation is vital. In an all green-energy economy by 2040, the wind and solar industries would be responsible for the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
A Green Future is Possible
While an all solar energy future isn’t in the plans right now, an all renewable energy future certainly is. By strengthening the current initiatives in place and making sure clean energy is top of mind, we can eliminate our need for fossil fuels, improve our country’s air quality - in turn reaping excellent health benefits - and create clean energy jobs for an economy that desperately needs it. Not only do these important changes improve the lives of future generations, but it can make a significant impact on the very near future of tomorrow.