Solar Power – Our Best and Only Answer?

By Michael Edmonds 11/02/2012

There is an interesting article in the 28th February New Scientist called “How clean is green?” which takes a look at climate change and our options for alternative sources of energy to fossil fuel. By considering the links between different sources of alternative energy and the heat they generate the article comes to the conclusion that harnessing solar energy is our best and only option.

The article explains that whenever we use or release energy most of it ends up as waste heat. When we use fossil fuels or nuclear energy we are releasing energy as heat which adds to the net heat of the planet. However, when we use solar energy which was going to fall on the planet anyway, to generate energy, there is no net heat gain.

The article also makes a good point about wind energy, that by extracting energy from the wind we could alter weather patterns, including levels of precipitation. Of course, if we could accurately predict these effects this might be an opportunity to adjust the weather in advantageous ways, although given the complexity of weather systems this might be an overly optimistic thought.

I like the suggestions in this article because to anyone with a basic understanding of how energy works it makes perfect sense – solar energy is our best option for sustainable energy production.

0 Responses to “Solar Power – Our Best and Only Answer?”

  • Sure, extracting energy from wind could alter weather patterns, but solar arrays also change the albedo (reflectance) of the surface they are placed upon, and must divert some of the energy out of the “natural” state to provide electricity somewhere else. The change in differential heating could affect wind flows and therefore weather as well. Unfortunately, there is no free pass with any system where we harness power from a source to use elsewhere. It is a big balancing act as to what causes the least harmful effects.

    I still think collecting energy from renewables (wind, tides, solar) is still likely to have less downstream “costs” than using fossil fuels.

  • “there is no free pass with any system”

    That is a great way to phrase it. An excellent point. The article did point out that with our current use of wind power we are no where near to making significant changes to the weather, though I’m not sure chaos theory would support this.
    Solar power and related energy generation along with more conservation of energy seems the most sensible approach for a sustainable future.

  • As I understand it, nuclear reactions will continue to generate heat whether the ores remain in the ground or they are concentrated as metals in a nuclear reactor.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this also result in no net heat gain?

  • Interesting thought Stuartg

    I would have thought the concentration and active extraction of energy would accelerate the release cof heat.

  • Wind turbines altering weather patterns?
    Windy atmospheric layer ~2km high; turbine ~0.1km high (correct me if I’m wrong with the values); I don’t see turbines being able to cause much disruption.
    The best solution is a good mix of solar, wind, hydro, maybe some geothermal; and fusion when (if…) that happens.

  • Likewise. I can’t see wind turbines having any more than a very localised ground-level effect.

    NZ has some advantages for windpower also- the flow of wind tends to be a lot more consistent (the prevalence of the flow across the Tasman) than for more continental countries. And the paucity of endangered flying bird species means the conservation risk is very much reduced.

    Another advantage of renewables like wind, is that the cleanup costs upon decommissioning are much lower. They don’t accumulate pollutants in generation-plant & surroundings like fossil fuels.

  • @Darcy- Not really. Just think about where it is economic to establish wind-farms. This is typically highly modified (i.e. former farms) on relatively high ridges, bereft of native vegetation. We actually have a lot of these because of NZ’s roughly perpendicular orientation (North-South) to that wind-flow from the Tasman*.

    People aren’t thinking about putting wind turbines into mature lowland forests.

    * This is why I get a little bit peeved at people trying to use N hemisphere experiences with wind-farms on continents to criticise the same in NZ. Our wind-flows are actually much more consistent & reliable than continents.

  • Predictions suggest that very intensive wind farming could affect the weather however we are no even close to that level of wind farming. It is intriguing that this could modify localized weather patterns.
    Because wind power and hydro power are derived directly from the suns energy they are good energy alternatives as well as direct solar energy.