Solar energy is by far the largest energy resource on the Earth. In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year. The solar energy that hits the Earth every second is equivalent to 4 trillion 100-watt light bulbs. However, current technology prevents our ability to full exploit this power, and so our reliance of ‘dirty energy’ remains. 

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2014, solar provided only 0.39% of the energy used in the US, and the wider renewable power family, including solar, wind, hydropower, biomass and geothermal, accounted for just 13% of the total energy used last year. 

To aid our ability to move away from oil and gas as key energy supplies, we must enhance and evolve our ability to capture solar energy. According to Nothwestern University, a commercial solar panel fixed to a residential roof can convert only 14% of the energy it captures. To push this level higher, technology is being developed to better capture the sunrays and store it for when the sun is not shining. For example, Australian engineers have built photovoltaic cells that can harvest an unprecedented 34.5% of the sun’s energy without concentrators. These cells are efficient, cover less surface area and therefore make solar power cheaper to produce. 

Extracting more energy from sunlight is critical to reducing the cost of electivity generated by solar cells as it lowers the investment needed to install the technology and speeds up return of investment. To do this, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney added mirrors to concentrate the sunlight of photovoltaic cell panels to achieve 40% efficiency, a record in this area. Work is now underway to scale up this technology, so it can be applied commercially.

The need to harvest energy from renewable sources is a key area of many major technology companies. Companies such as GE are working on hardware that improves the process of harvesting the sun’s energy, and many others are focusing on developing digital innovations to further improve efficiency of solar energy. In addition, Google, IBM and start-ups like Datarobot are building software platforms to collect weather data that enables of solar and wind energy optimisation to solve the issue of intermittency when the sun is not shining. 

We are also improving the way renewable energy sites are managed to increase their efficiency. For example, Insitu and CyPhy have developed drones to track across solar and wind energy farms to respond to operational issues and conduct minor repairs in a fraction of the time. Indeed, many of the parts needed for repair are then manufactured using 3D printing using high-tensile strength materials.

Another issue preventing our ability to utilise solar’s full potential is the limited efficiency of the batteries that store the collected energy. Only by developing batteries that can sustain our power needs can we use it more widely. Telsa, Sonnen and Enersys are just a few organisations tackling this issue, progressing the technology needed to store power at both a residential and utility level. 

The next issue is how we deliver this stored power. Further driving down the cost of energy so that affordable solar is available to both developed and less developed countries is key to encouraging wide-spread adoption. A number of solar providers are exploring Pay-Go services using Internet of Things (IoT) sensor systems to provide energy to customers only when they need it using their payment software infrastructure and this format could potentially provide the tipping point for renewable energy to surpass traditional energy sources. 

The sheer volume of innovations in progress in the world of energy using digital advances drive by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is testament to the commercial and ecological benefits advancements could yield. While there will always be barriers to overcome, whether it be political, financial or technological, there are teams all over the world fighting to keep the lights on, tackling climate change and developing life-changing technologies that could change the way we view and use power, forever. 

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