December 6, 2012

Solar Energy: Or, Finally Using Our Biggest Energy Source

When I was young, one of my favorite non-animated movies was Race the Sun. I referred to it then (and still do) as the “cockroach car” movie. As a child, my focus was more on the results of the race than it was the means, but when I watch it now I have a better grasp on the logistics and planning aspects involved in the movie’s plot.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie … just what are you waiting for? Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to ruin even the tiniest bit of the movie for yourself. Go on, next paragraph. Still here? Fair enough. The general plot of the movie is pretty much the tried and true high school rite of passage slash overcoming adversity formula. A new teacher in a Hawaiian high school pushes a group of misfits to come up with a science project. With a combination of a variety of skills, the group puts together a solar-powered car, going on to win a local race by studying the weather and making accurate predictions with which to modify their car. They qualify for the World Solar Challenge, held in Australia – open to both corporate teams as well as student teams. A series of misfortunes douses the Hawaiians’ spirits at times, but they pull through and complete the race thanks to last minute modifications and the overcoming of some of those angsty teen moments. The Hawaiian underdogs go neck and neck with one of the best teams in the field, showing that their perseverance and straight out stubbornness are just as good as money. It is a good tale – and you should watch it if you haven’t, even if it’s only to enjoy Halle Berry opposite James Belushi.

Now, I mention this film as a transition into solar energy. We’ve all seen the solar powered calculators and maybe some other solar powered accessories, like outdoor lawn lights. I have personally yet to see a solar powered car roaming the streets, although my future demands it happen – and with the data collected on just how much power we could potentially harness from the sun, I can definitely see it happening. Before typing out this article, I had no idea that the amount of energy the sun emits that actually reaches the surface of the planet is almost twice as much as the energy that could be collected from all of the earth’s non-renewable sources. These sources include coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium. Seriously? With all of the power that we use now, the thought that we could potentially double that using sunlight seems like something straight out of science fiction. Yet it is something that is feasible, or at least it seems like it would be if we pulled our heads out of our rear ends and actually got going on developing this technology.

At almost four million Exajoules of energy a year, the sun is essentially our biggest battery – and we aren’t using it at all to its fullest potential. On average, the amount of energy used in the United States alone is equal to – are you ready for this? – a mere 94 Exajoules. What we use in energy isn’t even equivalent to a fraction of the sun’s potential power. From agriculture to lighting, from water heating to home ventilation, solar energy has a ridiculous amount of uses that could create an entirely new world for us. And remember those solar cars I mentioned?

Race the Sun isn’t just a movie – it was based on the true story of a Hawaiian high school. The World Solar Challenge? It’s real – it’s a biannual solar-powered car race, with teams from universities and enterprises competing to complete the 1,877 mile (3,021 kilometer) course that runs from Darwin to Adelaide. It was founded in 1987 – the winner’s average speed was 42 mph (67km/h). In 2007, this speed moved up to about 56 mph (90 km/h). Sure, they aren’t Lamborghinis and Ferraris, but they also don’t run on four dollar gallons of gas. In the long run, these early designs and competitions could help us to reach a future where we might not be flying in our cars, but at least we won’t be shelling out five bucks for gallon of sunlight.

For information on Race the Sun, check out IMDB’s page here:

To learn more about the ridiculously awesome power of the sun, visit:

Image Credit: Susan Montgomery /

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