As a nation, we talk a lot about the issue of climate change; it seems like every few days, there’s a news story about how humans are exponentially increasing the release of warming greenhouse gases, how climate change can have severe effects on natural disasters and health, or how we need to convince the public that the issue is real.

However, with all of this information in mind, we should also be considering how to deal with the issue of climate change. Should we focus on mitigating the problem to prevent it from becoming worse or adapting to the problem because we assume its effects are inevitable? Should developed countries carry the most weight in finding a solution because they have more resources to do it? Or should developing countries be held equally responsible?

During his lecture entitled “The 21st Century Solar Army,” Dr. Harry Gray, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, tackled one issue concerning climate change solutions. He emphasized why renewable energy is critical: it produces an alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuels, which release large amounts of carbon that warm the atmosphere. 

The Sun emits energy in quantities great enough to sustain human needs for long periods of time if humans can figure out how to harness it / Sun Emits a Solstice CME / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Creative Commons

Even more, Gray addressed why simply promoting the existing solar energy technology will not be enough to meet the clean energy needs of the world. The sun provides enough solar energy to meet our needs. In fact, the sun emits more radiation onto the Earth every hour than the entire world uses for energy in an entire year, according to National Geographic. Despite this, we do not yet have the technology necessary to store solar energy for long periods of time.

“The sun is a boundless source of clean energy, but it goes down every night,” Gray said. “There’s plenty of [energy from the sun]. We just need to figure out how to make it useful for us.”

There are other challenges to address as well. Scientists must find ways to make solar energy systems more efficient, robust, and scalable, according to Gray. Climate change is such a large, global issue that we must face it with solutions that are are also efficient, stable, and scalable enough to handle the wide scope of the problem.

Solar panels can cover surface area, such as rooftops, parking lots, and open fields / Poultry Field Day Solar Panel / Delaware Cooperative Extension / Creative Commons

Gray hopes to meet these needs by designing machines and solar fuels that capture solar radiation to split water, yielding chemical fuels. He believes that these machines will be effective if we can just find the ideal catalysts for the process.

This is why Gray started the “Solar Army.” The Solar Army is a global outreach organization allowing high school and college students to assist in the search to find these catalysts. To deal with a global issue, it’s important to reach out to anyone around the world who is willing to help, including those of all ages.

“[Clean solar energy systems] could have a huge worldwide impact if we can just get them working properly,” Gray said. “We can change from a coal- and oil-based world to one focused on renewable energy. I just hope that we can do it in time.”

Watch the video below to learn more about how solar fuels work, and learn more about other types of renewable energy systems through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


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