The story of sunshine

SunFromClouds
Image by Bartosz Kosiorek, courtesy of Wikimedia.

It all started about 4.5 billion years ago. A small, unremarkable star began to shine, warming a small, unremarkable planet. After a mere billion years, life began to emerge. Another three billion years later, plants began to appear, and all that sunshine started being put to use.

Half an aeon on, and humans came on the scene. They took the solar energy that had built up over the previous few hundred million years – transformed from plants into oil, natural gas, and coal – and began burning it. They burned it so they could run things like steam engines and internal combustion engines. They also burned it to generate electricity. This allowed neat things to happen like the industrial revolution, the Space Age, and the Internet.

However, all that burning had the unfortunate side effect of destroying the planet. Oh, not all at once, of course. It started off slow, but like a snowball rolling down a mountainside, the rate of destruction got faster and faster until it looked like nothing could stop it.

This wasn’t an accident. Certain businesses had become very big and very rich by getting the oil, natural gas, and coal out of the ground. The people running those businesses tried to use their vast wealth to convince everyone that there was no problem with what they were doing. They did their best to prevent people from realizing that the carbon that came from their products was, in fact, nasty. They also did a very good job of blocking efforts to stop the planet from being destroyed. It seems a bit odd that they would do this, since their businesses rather depended on having a planet to reside on, but the things people do sometimes don’t make much sense.

Somewhere in the middle of all that burning, a clever person noticed something remarkable. If you took the right kind of material and shine sunlight on it, you get electricity. You can skip that whole multi-million-year step of waiting for dead plants to become oil, you could skip the step of burning that oil to boil water into steam, you could skip the step of using the steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity, and you could skip the whole planet-destroying thing as well.

It took a while for solar cells, as they were called, to take off. Perhaps that’s a poor choice of words, because one of the first things they did was literally to take off – or, actually, to lift off. At first, the only places where it made sense to make electricity from sunlight were ones in which nothing could burn because there was no air – outer space. As more and more solar cells were produced for things like satellites and deep space probes, some solar cells came down to earth, finding their way into other things like pocket calculators and marine navigation aids. The more solar cells that were produced, the cheaper they became.

Some people in government became concerned that the planet was getting warmer and the weather was getting weirder. There were more droughts, more floods, and more freak storms that killed people and did lots of damage. Those government people also noticed that oil, natural gas, and coal just kept getting more and more expensive, and tended to come from countries that were nasty and warlike. They thought that being dependent on those energy sources was a bad idea.

They began doing things to help solar energy to grow. Terms like feed-in tariffs, tax incentives, loan guarantees, and renewable portfolio standards started being bandied about. As governments set up programs to help solar, people and businesses responded. Soon solar panels – made up of dozens of solar cells –started appearing on rooftops and in fields.

The first people to get in the act were the ones that were most concerned about the planet. They decided to follow the put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is philosophy. Other people were in it for the cash. They couldn’t believe their luck – their roof used to be a liability, needing to be re-shingled every couple of decades at huge expense. Now, their roof had become an asset, like having a tenant in a basement apartment – except this tenant never had parties late at night, never took up any living space, and never skipped a rent cheque.

Early on, it was important to find a good roof. The best ones faced south, and had a rectangular shape. You could still make money if your roof faced southeast or southwest – you only lost about a tenth or so. Even if you had, say, a triangular roof (called a “hipped roof”, although it didn’t look anything like the part of your body that holds your pants up), you arranged the panels in a brickwork pattern and used up what space you could.

As time went on, the panels came to look less and less like an add-on, and more and more like they were always intended to be part of the building. They also got more efficient, so even roof areas that got only a bit of sun were worth wiring up. Most of all, solar panels just kept getting cheaper and cheaper.

The cheaper that solar panels got, the more that people wanted them. Soon, they were so cheap that governments didn’t need any programs to convince people to buy them. It was cheaper to buy solar panels and to get the power from them, than it was to buy the power from the local electric company.

In fact, the panels got so cheap that some governments found themselves in the awkward position of trying to explain why they had spent a ton of money building another way to make electricity – nuclear power. This type of energy was hugely expensive, hugely risky, hugely inflexible, took a very long time to build, had to be built a long way from the cities where the power was used, and had a nasty habit of producing poisonous waste that lasted thousands of years after the people who had used the electricity were quite dead. In other words, it was the exact opposite of solar in every way except that it produced watts. Half-built, abandoned nuclear power plants – and embarrassed politicians – became an all-to-common sight.

While all this was happening, something else was changing – the way people and stuff moved around. As oil, natural gas, and coal became more expensive, people started buying vehicles that ran on something else – electricity. Interestingly, people who owned this kind of vehicle were more likely than everyone else to buy solar panels. Something about being guilt-free while at home and on the road.

Solar carports started appearing in parking lots. Retail stores built them to attract electric car drivers. Businesses built them to show their employees that they cared about the environment. Municipalities built them to provide much-needed money, by charging people for charging their cars (in addition to charging them for taking up space in the parking lot).

The best thing about all these solar panels was that they lasted an incredibly long time. They would still produce power after a hundred years, long after the people who installed them were pushing up daisies. Instead of leaving behind a ruined planet and a bunch of poisonous garbage, people could choose to leave behind free electricity. In other words, solar gave people the chance to leave their children with a better planet rather than a worse one.

Eventually, the oil, natural gas, and coal companies went the same way as the stuff they once were paid so much to get out of the ground – they became fossils. The nasty carbon that their products spewed into the air began to subside, helped along by factories that pulled the carbon out of the air and used it to make other kinds of useful stuff. People realized that it was a good idea to plant trees instead of just cutting them down – since trees pull plenty of carbon out of the air, they helped repair some of the damage that had been done.

The electricity continued to flow steadily off the rooftops. The electric cars continued to hum down city streets free of smog and noise. The weird weather gradually calmed down.

And the sun kept right on shining.

Please note: The tone and language used in this post was inspired by The Story of Stuff. Although I am a huge fan of TSoS and recommend that you watch it, neither I nor this blog are affiliated in any way with TSoS. No infringement of their copyright is intended.

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4 thoughts on “The story of sunshine”

    1. Thanks, Mike – I actually did read it to the boys and they quite liked it. Maybe I can work a deal with a children’s book illustrator…

      Like

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