Solar energy: principles and possibilities

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Abstract:

As the world faces an impending dearth of fossil fuels, most immediately oil, alternative sources of energy must be found. 174 PW worth of energy falls onto the top of the Earth's atmosphere in the form of sunlight which is almost 10,000 times the total amount of energy used by humans on Earth, as taken from all sources, oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power combined. If even a fraction of this could be harvested efficiently, the energy crunch could in principle be averted. Various means for garnering energy from the Sun are presented, including photovoltaics (PV), thin film solar cells, quantum dot cells, concentrating PV and thermal solar power stations, which are more efficient in practical terms. Finally the prospects of space based (satellite) solar power are considered. The caveat is that even if the entire world electricity budget could be met using solar energy, the remaining 80% of energy which is not used as electricity but thermal power (heat) still needs to be found in the absence of fossil fuels. Most pressingly, the decline of cheap plentiful crude oil (peak oil) will not find a substitution via solar unless a mainly electrified transportation system is devised and it is debatable that there is sufficient time and conventional energy remaining to accomplish this. The inevitable contraction of transportation will default a deconstruction of the globalised world economy into that of a system of localised communities.
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