Is The Sun An Energy Source For Humans?

The sun is Earth’s primary source of energy. It emits an enormous amount of radiant energy that sustains life and drives Earth’s climate and weather. But can humans harness the sun’s energy for our needs as a civilization? In this article, we’ll examine the sun as an energy source for human use, looking at how solar energy is captured and converted for applications like electricity, heating, and transportation. We’ll consider the potential scale of solar energy, growth to date, costs, and limitations. By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of solar power’s role in the world’s energy mix today and in the future.

The Sun’s Energy Output

The sun produces an enormous amount of energy through nuclear fusion reactions in its core. The sun’s total energy output is around 3.8 x 10^26 watts. However, only a tiny fraction of that actually reaches Earth. This is because the sun radiates its energy in all directions and Earth only intercepts an infinitesimal portion of that.

The amount of solar energy that reaches Earth is around 174 petawatts, or 174 million billion watts. To put that into perspective, that is more than 10,000 times the global energy consumption of humans. So even though it seems small compared to the total solar output, the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth is vast and more than enough to meet humanity’s energy needs.

Solar Energy Conversion

The key technology that allows humans to harness energy from the sun is the solar cell, also called a photovoltaic cell. Solar cells are made from semiconductor materials, most commonly silicon. When sunlight hits the solar cell, photons from the sunlight are absorbed by the semiconductor atoms, causing electrons to become excited and break free. This generates an electric current that can then be captured and distributed for electricity. The more intense the sunlight that hits the solar cell, the greater the electrical output.

Solar cells are assembled together into solar panels or modules. A typical residential solar panel contains 60-72 solar cells, while utility-scale solar farms use panels with hundreds of cells. Multiple solar panels are connected into photovoltaic arrays that can range from a few kilowatts on residential rooftops to hundreds of megawatts at large solar power plants.

The photovoltaic effect that allows solar cells to produce electricity was first observed in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel. The first solar cell capable of converting enough sunlight into power to run electrical equipment was invented in 1954 at Bell Labs. Today’s solar panels typically have a conversion efficiency between 15-22%, meaning they can convert that percentage of the sun’s energy that hits them into usable electricity.

Uses of Solar Power

Solar energy can be harnessed and utilized in many different ways. Some of the major uses of solar power include:

Electricity Generation

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels can convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar PV systems are often installed on rooftops, but can also be ground-mounted at utility scale. The electricity generated from solar PVs can be used to power homes, businesses, and the grid.

Water Heating

Solar thermal collectors can harness the sun’s energy to heat water for domestic, commercial, or industrial uses. Solar water heating systems are a cost-effective way to reduce electricity or gas consumption.

Space Heating and Cooling

In passive solar building design, a building itself is designed to collect, store, and distribute solar energy for heating and cooling. Solar design principles can significantly reduce the energy requirements of buildings.


Solar cookers use sunlight as a source of heat for cooking, pasteurization, and drying. Solar cooking is primarily used in areas without access to electricity.

Agriculture and Industry

In addition to electricity and heat, solar energy can also provide mechanical power by driving high-temperature thermochemical reactions to create solar fuels. There is potential to use concentrated solar power for industrial process heat or to power machinery.

Solar Potential

Solar energy has enormous potential to meet the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way. Currently, solar provides only about 1% of global energy demand. However, studies estimate solar could feasibly supply most of the world’s energy by 2050.

solar energy has significant potential scale

The total solar energy striking the Earth is more than 10,000 times the world’s annual energy use. Even capturing a tiny fraction of solar radiation can meet humanity’s energy needs many times over. The challenge lies in efficiently harnessing this diffuse and variable energy source.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) have followed an exponential growth curve similar to computers, with costs dropping 10% with every doubling of installed capacity. With continued technological improvements and economies of scale, solar PV costs are projected to fall further. In many regions, solar is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

The intermittent nature of solar can be addressed through storage, demand management, and interconnection over large geographic areas. Integrating solar into existing grids does pose challenges, but these are engineering and economic problems that can be solved.

With many regions having vast solar resources, decentralized deployment potential, and rapidly falling costs, solar energy appears poised to transform global energy production. However, continued policy support, R&D, and infrastructure investment are needed to realize the full potential of this abundant renewable resource.

Growth of Solar

Solar power has experienced explosive growth over the past decade. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the amount of solar installed in the United States has increased more than 50 fold from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2008 to over 62 GW at the end of 2018. The SEIA reports that the amount of solar electric capacity operating in the U.S. increased by 14% in 2018 alone.

The rapid decline in the cost of solar panels and improved energy storage options have made solar power much more affordable and accessible. In addition, supportive government policies, such as renewable portfolio standards and federal tax credits, have also fueled the growth of the solar industry. Many experts predict that growth will continue as solar reaches grid parity with fossil fuels and becomes an increasingly economically attractive option for homeowners and businesses.

Costs of Solar

The costs of solar power have dropped dramatically in the past decade, making it increasingly competitive with conventional energy sources like coal and natural gas. According to industry estimates, utility-scale solar costs have fallen 88% since 2009. Today, the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for solar ranges from $30-60 per MWh, compared to $65-159 per MWh for coal and $41-74 per MWh for natural gas combined cycle plants.

The LCOE factors in capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance costs, financing costs and an assumed utilization rate over the life of the plant. As solar has no fuel costs and minimal maintenance needs due to lack of moving parts, the vast majority of costs are upfront capital costs. These costs have come down through economies of scale in manufacturing, improved module efficiency, and streamlining system components and installation methods.

Residential and commercial solar have higher LCOEs than utility-scale, but costs have declined significantly as well. Plus, solar panels can eliminate or drastically cut electricity bills once the system pays for itself. Overall, as technology improves and adoption rises, solar is clearly trending towards being cost-competitive with conventional power across sectors.

Limitations of Solar

Solar energy has several limitations that need to be addressed for it to reach its full potential. Some of the most significant limitations include:

  • Intermittency: Unlike fossil fuel power plants that can provide electricity 24/7, solar energy systems generate power only when the sun is shining. This creates an intermittent, unreliable supply of energy. Storage solutions are required to address this limitation.

  • Energy Storage: The intermittent nature of solar energy, with generation decreasing at night or during
    cloudy days and weather, requires advancements in storage technology to capture excess daytime energy for 24-hour use.

  • Space Requirements: Solar power requires large-scale installations to collect enough energy, typically
    on land that would otherwise house cities, forests, or farms. Less intrusive solutions are required.

Solar power has enormous potential to supply clean energy worldwide, but advances are required to overcome challenges like intermittency, storage, and space requirements before it can become the dominant energy source.

Outlook for Solar

The long-term outlook for solar energy is promising. Solar power has historically experienced dramatic cost reductions as efficiencies and technologies improve. The levelized cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics, or PV, has dropped over 88% since 2009 according to one recent analysis. In 2019, solar electricity was the cheapest it had ever been in history.

Solar energy offers a renewable and virtually inexhaustible resource for humanity’s long term energy needs. New solar installations are projected to grow substantially in the coming years and decades, especially as storage technologies progress and costs continue to come down. Solar PV combined with battery storage offers increasingly reliable and affordable clean energy. With supportive policies, technological advances, and global commitment, solar has the potential to supply a large portion of humanity’s energy far into the future.


In conclusion, solar power has enormous potential to be a major energy source for humans in the future. As solar technology continues to advance and costs continue to decline, solar is becoming more and more competitive with conventional energy sources. Within the next few decades, solar could realistically provide over 25-50% of total global electricity generation. With further improvements in storage technology, solar may even be able to meet a majority of humanity’s energy needs. The outlook for solar is incredibly bright, as the resource itself – sunlight – is virtually limitless. As long as the sun continues to shine, solar can play a major role in powering human civilization.

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