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Issue 3, 2014
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Solar energy: setting the economic bar from the top-down

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Sunlight is the thermal radiation from sustained nuclear reactions inside our nearest star, the sun. This solar radiation has made possible the evolution of living organisms, it powers photosynthesis for production of food and biomass, and it is the source of hydroelectric and wind energy. Solar energy has supported our lives and created the fossil fuels which have made possible the extraordinary socioeconomic prosperity of our planet's 7 billion inhabitants. With sunlight, geothermal, and terrestrial nuclear fuels, the earth's people have abundant nearly carbon-free primary energy resources for the long term. Economically transforming these resources into useful energy forms for continuing society's increasing prosperity without damaging the earth's environment is the greatest challenge facing civilization today. There is no evidence that commercial solar panels or any similar direct solar energy conversion system based on present ideas can be manufactured, installed, operated, and maintained at a cost low enough to provide significant fractions of the energy needed for continued global economic growth. There is a price that is too high to pay for energy. Without economic sustainability the social unrest and possible global “warring” may be a far greater concern than global warming or climate change. New ideas, not more solar panel production, are needed if our solar resource is to be used to produce more and cheaper sustainable power needed for long-term prosperity. In the end, human existence depends upon our ability to make wise use of the heat generated from nuclear reactions whether in our sun, inside our earth, or in our own reactors.

Graphical abstract: Solar energy: setting the economic bar from the top-down

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Article information

13 Nov 2013
06 Jan 2014
First published
07 Jan 2014

Energy Environ. Sci., 2014,7, 846-854
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Author version available

Solar energy: setting the economic bar from the top-down

E. W. McFarland, Energy Environ. Sci., 2014, 7, 846
DOI: 10.1039/C3EE43714K

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