The Future of Solar Power in Our Lives

One of the biggest words associated with solar power (and with many forms of alternative, clean energy, really) is “potential.” Potential to create a clean energy portfolio, potential to reduce our consumption and demand for fossil fuels, potential to change the way we live and power our lives…the list goes on. Some sobering numbers that back this up: More energy from the sun hits the Earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed by humans in an entire year. According to the US Department of Energy, in 2001 the world consumed at an average rate of more than 13 trillion watts (that’s 13 terawatts, or TW), just a fraction of the 120,000 TW of energy available that falls to Earth, all for free. While it’s unfortunate that solar hasn’t lived up to its potential thus far, it is exciting to take a peek into the near future at some of the projects it could be used for; in some cases, the future has already arrived. Check out some of the best possible implementations TreeHugger has seen for the ability to turn the sun’s rays into usable energy.

1) We first saw [] the solar-power-assisted hybrid car option a few years back, including a rough estimate of a 10% improvement in fuel economy. We’re happy to see a similar implementation [] that offers, in the case of the Toyota Prius, up to 20 miles per day of all-electric driving, thus improving fuel economy by up to 29% (depending on driving habits and conditions, of course). Though the future is here with this product, we hope to see a lot more of similar projects that could potentially cut fuel usage by up to half.
2) In an idea that just makes sense, and another one that we saw coming awhile back [], a company called SolCool recently launched [] what they’re calling a “hybrid solar air conditioner” that runs on solar panels, or a wall socket, or batteries. The unit operates at a maximum of 500 watts, which is less than half what typical air conditioning units use (and within reach for residential solar projects). Imagine: using the sun to cool you down. We love it.
3) Though kitschy and pretty impractical, we found enough to like in the solar bikini [] concept to feature it twice []. Sure, a solar bikini doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but how cool would it be to be able to charge your cell phone, iPod or laptop computer with just the clothes you’re wearing today?
4) In a version of the technology that will surely continue to help the clean, green energy realize its potential, solar thermal power [] — the kind that uses the concentrated power of the sun to do work — has a conversion efficiency of around 40%, using essentially mirrors to direct the sun instead of expensive (though continually and quickly evolving) photovoltaic cells. While more traditional solar is catching up to this efficiency, it can be a lot easier to gather a group of mirrors than it is to develop better solar technology. Still, no need to worry about the mix: there’s plenty of sunlight to go around.