Solar energy started out as portable means to generate enough power to recharge a calculator or some small electronic and electrical devices. However, with the rapid rise in the cost of conventional energy, coupled with the rising threats of global warming, air pollution and climate change, energy companies over the globe want to give solar an even bigger task – power the world. Although recent advancements in solar technology have pushed forward the capacity of solar energy, while bringing down the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity, the debate as to whether solar can replace coal or not still looms large.
Although coal is quite a polluting way to generate electrons, the fact remains that it is also the cheapest and by far the most reliable way to do so. Solar on the other hand, requires a large initial investment and still isn’t a completely dependable source of clean power. Modern solar thermal power plants are trying to change that with the introduction of heating fluids that can retain heat for use when the sun isn’t shining, but still their dependency cannot be compared with that of coal.
This is the reason why solar energy, despite all advancements, still isn’t generating a fair percentage of the overall energy requirements of a country like the United States of America. Companies such as the Solar City, founded by none other than Elon Musk, are still trying to give coal a stiff competition by allowing homeowners to install rooftop solar energy generating systems without worrying about the initial investment. The plan has worked quite wonderfully too and coal fired power plants are definitely witnessing the shift in trends. However, when it comes to handling peak demands of the day, solar power really needs to take up some steroids.
Competing on price:
Initially, the biggest drawback of generating solar energy was that it was way too expensive. However, recent advancements in solar technology have brought down to cost to levels that can be compared to the energy generated by a conventional coal-fired power plant. This price parity is something that solar energy is banking on for its future growth. Hence, we can safely assume that in the coming decades, price per kilowatt-hour of solar electricity won’t be a consideration when planning large scale solar power plants.
Handling peak demands:
Things aren’t as bright for solar energy when it comes to handling peak electricity demands of the modern world, as they are when we consider its environmental benefit. Since sunshine isn’t a dependable source of power, unless we’re harvesting it in space, solar power will have to continue with its inefficiency in the near future as well. However, since the capacity of solar power generating systems, especially solar thermal power generating systems, is increasing and the technology is being evolved, the inefficiencies can certainly be taken care of.
Dependence on climate:
Harnessing solar energy here on planet earth has been and will always be dependent on climatic conditions. Obviously, we cannot ensure that solar energy generating panels will receive sunlight perpetually and in any case, there will be no energy generation during the night. While there are utilities that are experimenting with salt-based solar thermal energy generating systems, where solar energy can be stored in the form of heat for days when the sun isn’t shining or for generating energy during the night hours, there are others who have come up with a completely different approach. These innovative researchers have planned to install an entire solar photovoltaic power plant not on the earth, but in the low earth orbit, where there is no climatic interference and the plant can continue to face the sun at all times. All this energy will then be beamed back from this space based solar power to a ground based station, where it will be converted from laser energy or microwaves into usable electricity.
Considering the above-mentioned attributes, we can safely say that solar energy definitely has all the potential to replace coal. However, these attributes also show that such a change is nearly impossible with current technology and infrastructure and hence, we all have to wait for at least a couple of days for things to improve and technology to evolve.