With a new administration in Washington promising to take on global warming and loosen the grip of foreign oil, solar energy finally may be coming of age. Last year oil prices spiked to more than $140 a barrel before plunging along with the economy—a reminder of the dangers of tying the future to something as unpredictable as oil. Washington, confronting the worst recession since the 1930s, is underwriting massive projects to overhaul the country's infrastructure, including its energy supply. In his inaugural address President Barack Obama promised to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." His 2010 budget called for doubling the country's renewable energy capacity in three years. Wind turbines and biofuels will be important contributors. But no form of energy is more abundant than the sun.
"If we talk about geothermal or wind, all these other sources of renewable energy are limited in their quantity," Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, in Freiburg, Germany, told me last fall. "The total power needs of the humans on Earth is approximately 16 terawatts," he said. (A terawatt is a trillion watts.) "In the year 2020 it is expected to grow to 20 terawatts. The sunshine on the solid part of the Earth is 120,000 terawatts. From this perspective, energy from the sun is virtually unlimited."
There are two main ways to harness it. The first is to produce steam, either with parabolic troughs like the ones in Nevada or with a field of flat, computer-guided mirrors, called heliostats, that focus sunlight on a receiver on top of an enormous "power tower." The second way is to convert sunlight directly into electricity with photovoltaic (PV) panels made of semiconductors such as silicon.
Each approach has its advantages. Right now steam generation, also known as concentrating solar or solar thermal, is more efficient than photovoltaic—a greater percentage of incoming sunlight is converted into electricity. But it requires acres of land and long transmission lines to bring the power to market. Photovoltaic panels can be placed on rooftops at the point where the power is needed. Both energy sources share an obvious drawback: They fade when it's cloudy and disappear at night. But engineers are already developing systems for storing the energy for use in the darker hours.
The optimists say that with steady, incremental improvements—no huge breakthroughs are required—and with substantial government support, solar power could become as economical and efficient as fossil fuels. The pessimists say they've heard all this before—30 years ago, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. That too was a period of national crisis, triggered by the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Addressing the nation in his cardigan sweater, President Carter called for a new national energy policy with solar energy playing a large part. In 1979 the Islamic revolution in Iran sent oil prices soaring again. American drivers lined up for gasoline, their radios blaring songs like "Bomb Iran," by Vince Vance and the Valiants (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann"). Carter, true to his word, put solar water heaters on the White House roof.