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Sunshower: Space Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and the Realization of a Solar Energy Solution

"The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself."

Currently, while the after effects of the previous economic crisis continues to occupy the thoughts and fears of people worldwide but also while the solutions to this very same crisis are still unfolding, one area of concern continues to be deliberated:  the energy problem.  It is perhaps appropriate that this is something that is being focused on in the recently unveiled and passed stimulus package, as it was runaway energy prices (i.e.-oil and natural gas) that was the first big domino to fall, contributing to our current problem.  While some would say that the return of fossil fuel prices to something affordable should mean that we can relax and not worry about addressing that in the face of other problems, the truth is that those prices will not remain this low forever.  If the advent of well-nigh $150/barrel oil taught us anything, it was that market prices are not always rational, and that relying on the supply and demand of a commodity as rare and tenuous as oil is really a large-scale game of Russian roulette with far-reaching consequences...why trust the very foundation of a global economy to something so unreliable?
Energy Production And You And Me:

While the often-touted combo for controlling market forces as related to the energy sector is wind, solar, biofuel, and nuclear power (perhaps eventually fusion), I think the big, overlooked area of these is solar (well, maybe except the implications for ITER).  Now, I know governments and citizens in various countries worldwide have strived for years to make solar power an attractive and affordable thing for most people, but the truth of it is the "energy balance" of current solar devices is problematic for the average person.  Even with government-based incentives, a standard solar power system, whether it be for hot water generation or, as being discussed for electric/hybrid cars, a car-mounted panel, is an expensive proposition at the outset, and has a short product life.  They also tend to be high-maintenance, bulky, and fragile.  But don't despair...recent research has some working prototypes for solar panels that are, in turn, both extremely durable while being lightweight and up to 5 times as energy efficient in generating power.  The problem is, these are prototypes and, unless I'm missing something, the Israeli firms that are conducting this research have yet to enter largescale production.  The names of these firms are Pythagoras Solar and Zenith Solar.  The first specializes in making solar panels extremely thin and even to a degree flexible (also potentially cheap...they made news a few years ago for essentially making an unrollable panel).  The second specializes in increasing the energy yield through concentrating solar light so that it may be more readily absorbed by surrounding materials.  It is estimated that with these methods a 12 sq km area can be made to yield 1000Mw.  This latter item probably wouldn't lend itself well to anything other than industrial scale energy collection.

The simple solution would be to offer these firms contracts to either fill work orders using the tech they have or to enter into cooperative research agreements with other firms to further refine the designs while combining the principle ideas together with other breakthroughs, where possible.  This is likely being done already to some extent.  The other possibility would be to, of course, work in house with other existing firms that are working on similiar methods and would be able to readily engineer something on a comparable scale.  Either way, the potential is there, though I suppose you're wondering how can "we" all help with this?
Well, something that has been considered as a design feature and will be offered as an optional feature on some upcoming hybrid car models is the solar roof pack for charging a vehicle in off mode.  My guess as to why it isn't being considered as a mandatory feature is that it would be very expensive to outfit every model with what is currently technologically available for mass production, even given economies of scale, and that it would raise the sticker price too far to make a threshold Chevy Volt (for example) competitively priced enough for the market place.  However, should we look more closely at the technology that Pythagoras Solar offers (or similar such tech depending on), the relatively lower bulkiness as well as higher potential for a cheaper economies of scale outcome per unit production would make this a viable feature for cars like the Volt sooner rather than later.  Also, such would make everyone potentially a contributor to energy production, depending on local laws and regulations.  Taking the Volt as an example again, which at full charge can go 40 miles before switching to the fuel-powered generator, envision the person who does not go 40 miles each day in their car.  Maybe they drive half that distance round trip for standard commuting (or occasionally car pool with a friend or what-not), then leave their car to charge.  If the car had a solar panel roof or, given significant advances, could count other parts of the cars surface area as energy-gathering, it would spend a good deal of time at or close to full charge.  Install a grid input in their driveway or on their street and assign each Volt driver a card-linked account that tracks the balance of their energy contribution/use, and you got an additional feature and even incentive for getting people driving the Volt.  Of course, on the other hand, the net contribution from such a source can be somewhat debatable, but overall it couldn't hurt to consider such a thing, as many are now doing.  The beautiful thing about this idea is that it takes something that is already taking up space (a car) and turns it potentially into a source for energy.  Smaller, lightweight and cheaper forms of solar panels, panels that could be used to essentially "canvas" a surface or that could even be durable and flexible enough to be used as siding on a house or shingles could change the way we look at this source, silencing the critics who call solar a liberal pie-in-the-sky folly and bringing this concept fully mainstream.

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