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Climate Science

October 7, 2012

Solar energy: Clean source of electricity for the planet

The sun, photographed in all its glory, is a thermonuclear powerhouse. It is a constant reminder of all of the energy coming to our planet every day and is the source of all power, and life, on Earth. 

The diameter of the sun is about 865,000 miles or about 109 Earths lined up in a row, and consists of 75 percent hydrogen, 23 percent helium and small amounts of other elements. It will continue to “burn,” via fusion, this hydrogen, converting it to helium, for billions of years to come.

It is also the source of an enormous and growing amount of solar-based electrical energy. Through the use of photovoltaic (PV) technology, some of the sun’s incoming energy can be converted directly into electricity and fed into the electrical grid, just as fossil-fuel-sourced electricity is today. 

According to Jeff Himmelman in The New York Times Magazine, August 2012, “enough sunlight falls on the Earth’s surface every hour to meet the entire world’s energy needs for one year.” Furthermore, with today’s 15 to 20 percent efficient solar panels, and improving every year, a 100-square-mile array in the American southwest would meet the energy requirements of the whole United States.

Germany has developed a national energy plan to power their modern society and technology-rich industry. Their objective is to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases up to 35 percent by 2020. They are steadily moving toward that goal. Their per-capita emissions are half that in the United States. Like most industrial economies, they have relied in the past on coal, oil, gas, nuclear and some renewable sources of energy to meet their needs. 

Their center-right government under Angela Merkel (who has a PhD in chemical physics, incidentally) recognizes the threat of climate change brought about by increasing levels of greenhouse gases. The changes in Germany’s energy supply made in the last several years are nothing short of amazing. 

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