By Sam Cooper
Thomas Edison once said, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!"
Over the last ten years, solar power has become ubiquitous in conversations about renewable energy. As the cost to produce solar photovoltaic cells has plummeted in recent years, more and more homes, businesses and communities have invested in solar.
Solar has become a foundational renewable energy source, with major investments driving new project development all over the country. As the technology continues to develop, the future of solar is an even more exciting place to look.
The First Rays of Progress
The year was 1839. At just 19 years of age, French Physicist Edmond Becquere created the world's first photovoltaic cell. His discovery, known as the Photovoltaic Effect or "Becquerel Effect," showcased the foundational physics and process for what we now consider solar power and cemented his place in the history books. However, his discovery did not kick off a solar revolution. Instead, it remained in the domain of the laboratory well into the 20th century.
In 1954, inventors David Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson capitalized on the Becquerel Effect, creating the world's first modern solar cell at Bell Labs. The very next year Hoffman Electrics produced their own solar cells, which sold commercially for 25¢ each. As solar technology continued to develop, solar power expanded to cars, planes, satellites, homes, commercial buildings and even spacecraft.
Over time, the basic concept behind solar hasn't strayed far from early models. However, the cells used to power our homes and lives today are much, much more advanced and efficient — driving down costs and opening up new uses for solar in our lives.
The Current State of Solar Technology
The solar industry has expanded and matured in recent years, accompanied by advances in power storage, miniaturization and materials that combine to make solar photovoltaics more efficient and durable and versatile.
In a sure sign of industry maturity, some companies are beginning to focus on the aesthetics of solar systems, instead of concerning themselves solely with advances in performance. One such company is Sistine Solar, a Boston-based startup which has created a "solar skin" that covers solar panels, altering their appearance. From skins that match the roof to artistic flags and designs, these skins help homeowners blend or beautify their rooftop panels without affecting efficiency.
That said, scientists and developers continue to push the limits of panel efficiency. The more efficient a panel is, the more energy created, and cheaper these panels can be in the long term. Most solar panels fall in the 14 to 18 percent efficiency range, but in 2018 a number of companies brought panels to market in the 24 to 25% range.
The current state of solar technology is promising, but it pales in comparison to what the future holds.
A Limitless Solar Future — If We Can Build It
Solar's potential seems limitless, but it would be wrong to consider the matter settled. Despite the astounding pace of innovation, solar technologies have only effectively doubled since the first cell was created in 1954. Furthermore, humankind's demand for reliable power shows no signs of slowing. In order to fully utilize clean, renewable solar energy, scientists, policymakers and financiers the world over are going to have to be clever.
Looking ahead, some researchers and thinkers asked: how could we offer solar energy round the clock, while maintaining the ability to meet increasing energy demand. The answer, it seems, is to create solar farms in space.
The idea of launching solar panels into space where they can generate electricity 24 hours a day and wirelessly transmit the power back to Earth might seem like science fiction, but it's becoming increasingly more likely by the day.
As a concept, wireless transmission of energy has been with us since the invention of the radio, and the first notable long distance power transmission experiments occurred in 1982. In 2018, scientists from the California Institute of Technology announced that they had succeeded in creating a prototype of a lightweight tile which would be capable of harnessing and transmitting solar energy generated from space. These lightweight tiles would have the ability to follow the Earth's orbit, meaning power would flow continuously, without a night time dip.
While orbital solar farms might still lie in the future, terrestrial solar is a very real presence in our lives today. As solar power continues to enjoy advances in technology, performance and cost efficiency, solar looks poised to be one of our most prevalent sources of clean, renewable energy. Not just in our power supply, but in our tech, toys and daily lives. Without a doubt, solar will be one of the pillars of our 100% clean energy future.
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Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
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By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.