In 2014 the International Energy Agency predicted that the sun could be the planet’s biggest source of electricity by 2050. In Saudi Arabia, a Finnish study has shown that the world’s second-largest oil producer will be able to harness enough solar energy to transition to a 100% renewable energy economy by 2040.
Several recent projects in Europe have demonstrated the tremendous potential of wind and solar energy. In August 2022 Spain turned on Iberdrola, the largest solar power plant in Europe which has over 1.5 million solar panels and a capacity of 590 megawatts that will produce enough electricity to supply more than 330 000 households. Portugal is currently installing Europe’s largest floating solar park consisting of 12 000 panels. In April 2022 Greece inaugurated a 204-megawatt solar farm with bifacial panels, which can collect light energy on both sides. The 49 wind turbines in the Danish offshore wind farm, Horns Reef 3, have a total capacity of 407 megawatts that will meet the annual electricity consumption of about 425 000 households.
To ensure a reliable power supply, promote the uptake of renewables, and reduce the costs of electricity transmission, some countries have been encouraging homeowners and businesses to become producer-consumers (‘prosumers’) who generate electricity with solar panels, consume a share of it and feed excess power back into the grid. In February 2023, the Western Cape regional government in South Africa approved plans to launch an ambitious prosumer solar power scheme in Cape Town.
Scientists at Washington State University are working on an ambitious project to harness the power of the solar wind which, if successful, could generate 1 billion gigawatts of electricity, which is 100 billion times more power than the planet currently consumes. The solar wind is a constant stream of charged particles (mostly electrons, protons, and alpha particles) that are released from the upper atmosphere of the sun, so it is a renewable source of energy as long as the sun continues to shine.
Renewable energy sources have the potential to create far more energy than the world currently needs but this potential does not match up with what we can currently achieve. One of the biggest challenges is to set up enough capacity to capture ‘clean’ energy and convert it into electricity.
Another challenge is to transport the energy to where it is needed or store it for later use. Furthermore, a future energy system needs to be resilient to the inevitable impacts of climate change, such as an increased frequency of severe droughts, heat waves, and storms. Fortunately, the cost of renewable energy production is decreasing, and it remains on course to outprice fossil fuels in the future.
Although formidable challenges still need to be overcome, futurists have concluded that the technology exists for the world to transition to a fully sustainable energy system by 2050, which would keep the planet below the 1.5°C Paris Agreement global warming target. This future is attainable if a range of stakeholders, including policymakers, business leaders, scientists, science educators, and consumers, all take joint action.
Science centres and museums will play a crucial role in this transformation by educating the public on the urgent need to make dramatic changes to their lifestyles so that there can be a proactive societal response to climate change and the urgent need to transition to renewable energy.