Solar Energy: Background and Importance
The rising threat of climate change and global warming has driven research and policies geared towards the utilization of renewable sources of energy – one of which is solar energy.
Solar energy is an important source of renewable energy that involves harnessing radiant light and heat from the sun to produce electricity and solar thermal power. In converting solar energy into these forms, the challenge mostly lies with the technologies to harness the energy on the scale required. The earth receives approximately 173,000 terrawatts of energy from the sun every day, 10,000 times the total global energy use.
There are broadly two methods for transforming solar energy which include the use of active or passive solar techniques. Active solar techniques require the use of photovoltaic systems (solar panels and other related components), concentrated solar power (through the use of mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight to a particular area), and solar water heating. Passive systems involve designing buildings to face the sun and their spaces to be well ventilated.
To improve the efficiency of solar energy utilization, several novel approaches have been used such as:
Concentrator photovoltaics: These systems merge the functionalities of photovoltaic systems and concentrated solar power through the use of lenses and curved mirrors to direct light to photovoltaic surfaces. They also use solar trackers that ensure the cell's central point as the direction of sunlight changes.
Floating solar: In this form of harnessing solar energy, photovoltaic cell systems are installed over water reservoirs, irrigation canals, and lakes. The advantage over land-installed systems is that the energy conversion is higher, water lost to evaporation is saved, and it promotes land conservation.
Perovskite Solar Cell: This solar cell includes a perovskite-structured compound (e.g. compounds of methylammonium lead halides) as the energy-trapping active layer. They harvest energy more efficiently than conventional methods although they are not as stable.
Solar energy is an important renewable energy source for the following reasons:
Planet-friendly – harnessing solar energy does not generate consequential greenhouse gas emissions.
It is sustainable – for the apparent reason that its source is the sun.
It is freely available – with the right technologies and knowledge, anyone can utilize solar energy for their needs.
Economically friendly – although associated with a high initial cost of set-up, the maintenance cost is relatively low.
Diverse utility – solar energy can be used to generate both electricity and thermal energy.
Economic Significance of Solar Energy
As the technological applications powering the harvesting of solar energy continue to advance, the solar energy market is expected to continue its ascendancy. In 2021, Predence Research estimated that the market was worth $197.23 billion. The firm projects that it will reach $368.63 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 7.2%.
Obviously, this can only be attained through continuous improvements in methods of transforming solar power.
There are challenges to be overcome, as highlighted below.
Challenges in the Utilization of Solar Energy
Despite its advantages, solar energy does have its cons.
Variable supply – Solar energy supply is highly variable as it depends on the season and geographical location. Limited supply implies that utilization itself is limited.
Inefficient energy output – despite the steady progress that has been made in solar energy conversion, the energy conversion of photovoltaic cells has not achieved peak efficiency.
Land space – the installation of solar power systems usually takes up land space which can be a challenge in space-limited areas.
While this is not an exhaustive list of the technical limitations of solar energy conversion, they are some of the challenges to overcome on the journey to creating sustainable solar energy.
The advantages of solar energy can be maximized and its cons minimized through the integration of Industry 4.0 technologies like Artificial Intelligence.
The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Harnessing Solar Energy
AI has powerful data processing capabilities and is a key part of other powerful technologies that can contribute to the growth of the solar energy sector. Some of the ways AI can aid the sector are outlined below.
Energy forecasting – This can be viewed in two ways: from the perspective of energy generation from the photovoltaic cells and from the viewpoint of the expansion of the solar energy market. In the first instance, AI models can be built to predict the expected energy output from photovoltaic system installations using local data from the panels and the meteorological data of the environment. These predictions are important to guarantee some degree of stability to the variable energy supply. In the second instance, the analytic capabilities of AI can be applied to data gathered on solar energy across a wide geographical region to determine solar energy production and consumption patterns. The insights generated can inform decisions by the pubic and private sectors to expand the solar energy market.
Smart tracking system for capturing solar radiation - AI-powered solutions can be used to automate the adjustment of solar panels as solar irradiance changes during the day with changes in the weather.
Intelligent Storage Units – Not all the energy trapped from solar radiation will be used automatically. Demand and supply will also determine how much of the energy converted is distributed. Intelligent storage units powered by AI can automate this process and more efficiently distribute solar energy as required.
Predictive Maintenance – The predictive capabilities of AI can also be used to guarantee peak functionality of solar technologies by projecting equipment breakdown timelines and sending notification signals to maintenance staff. Furthermore, combined with drone technology and computer vision software, the inspection of solar energy systems can be automated and barely visible structural defects can be identified.