By Arif I. Sarwat Ph.D.
The summer solstice is upon us. June 21st at noon will mark the high point of the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and the moment in which we will receive more sunlight than any other day.
In ancient civilizations, the solstice evoked worship and massive structures to denote the power of the sun, especially on its maximizing of the Earth’s rotation: think Stonehenge and Chichen Itza.
What it can also mean, in the context of the 21st century with an ever-growing population, is a clean and renewable energy source. In fact, sunlight has been used since the dawn of time to create energy. Since then, we have learned to harness its power to push forth advancements in our society and over the past 60 years, that pace of change has accelerated.
When the first solar cell was invented in 1954, it was just enough to power a few small electrical devices. At that time, The New York Times stated that it marked “the beginning of a new era,” which would eventually lead to the realization of “harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” Not so fast.
Fifty-five years later, what then seemed like science fiction is just starting to fulfill its destiny. Today, solar cells give us enough energy to power cars and even high-flying airplanes. But how do we take it to the next level?
FUN FACT: Enough sunlight hits the Earth every hour and a half to meet the energy needs of the planet for one full year.
So, that begs the question – If solar energy is cleaner, more sustainable and requires minimum maintenance cost and no running cost of fuel, (but is still more expensive than other forms of generation) then why aren’t we using more of it, especially on the longest day of the year?
The good news is that solar is on the rise in our state. But capturing solar energy is a little more complicated than it may seem and even on the longest day of the year, it can have its limitations. One of the primary issues associated with solar is intermittency, or what is also known as cloud cover. While we live in the Sunshine State, cloud covering is something we know all too well, especially between the months of June and November, also affectionately known as hurricane season.
Through a major partnership with Florida, Power & Light (FPL), the Energy, Power and Sustainability (EPS) group at FIU’s Engineering Center analyzes data from the canopy-like solar array, which shades more than 400 parking spaces, to study the impacts of intermittent solar power on the electric grid in South Florida’s tropical climate. Our researchers also look at historic weather patterns to develop predictive models to forecast the reliability of solar power generation.
But you don’t have to be a scientist to help contribute to this goal.
Consumers, particularly younger ones, are keen on using cleaner energy sources and on expanding the use of wind and solar power. Indeed, residential solar is becoming a viable option for many homeowners and businesses are using solar and other energy efficiency measures as a competitive advantage to offset energy costs and gain LEED certification. As everyone comes to the realization that they can be more energy efficient, reduce costs and be a good steward of the environment, solar adoption will only continue to rise.
In the meantime, we will continue to work hard and fast to find the best ways to capture and distribute this bountiful energy that surrounds us — especially this time of the year when the sun peaks in on our half of the world.
Truth be told, the future is definitely sunny for solar energy. Happy Solstice.
Arif Sarwat is an Associate Professor for FIU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Sarwat also serves as Director of FPL-FIU’s Solar Research Center and FIU’s Energy, Power & Sustainability (EPS) group.