Modern society runs on energy. It powers almost every aspect of our lives. Yet the infrastructure and approach to energy generation is far from modern in most developed nations.
This, plus the ever-increasing appetite for energy in developing regions, presents a global energy challenge that no one nation can solve alone. Looking at the global energy mix, it becomes apparent that conventional energy sources are simply unsustainable.
According to US Energy Information Administration figures for 2009, coal and peat still accounted for 40% of energy production, with gas at 21% and oil at 5%. Burning these fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat added 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2011.
Traditional fuel production processes are also unsustainable. For example, shale gas requires 4.5 million gallons of water per well for hydraulic fracturing. A 500 megawatt coal plant uses 2.2 billion gallons of water annually.
Nuclear power may not produce pollutant gases but it has still left us with a global inventory of 180,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel needing to be dealt with safely and securely. How can we begin to address such a massive global challenge?
The shift to a new energy paradigm is already underway. The promise of renewables is being realized, with distributed generation technologies, like solar, gaining acceptance at an accelerated rate.
According to IMS Research, a specialist in market research on all aspects of the solar photovoltaic (PV) value chain, global PV growth is expected to double by 2016. But we are only at the beginning of a truly sustainable energy revolution. Making solar energy more accessible can further unlock its true potential.
Over the last decade, the development of solar PV has mostly focused on making better-performing systems that are less complicated to install. Today, the installation of solar energy systems is still largely a specialized trade.
But new technologies, such as microinverters, are turning solar arrays from high-voltage systems requiring advanced management training, into safer low-voltage systems that are more accessible.
Imagine a world where any general contractor, roofer or electrician can grow their business by offering solar as a complement to their services. Even “do-it-yourselfers” would now have the ability to take their energy costs into their own hands.
This seemingly far-off dream is already a fast-approaching reality, with the result that solar is poised to break into the mainstream.
Building a new, decentralized energy infrastructure, in which the points of generation and consumption are not separated by hundreds of miles of transmission lines, is certainly a challenge. But accessible solar, as part of a larger sustainable energy mix, presents practical solutions to the modern global energy challenge.
About the author: Paul Nahi is president and CEO of Enphase Energy, a provider of microinverters for the global solar energy industry. Enphase is one of World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers for 2013.
Pictured: An abandoned gas station is seen at the side of a road. REUTERS/Carlos Barria