Can Solar Power Be More Than Window Dressing?

Solar power has been only capable of producing a small part of data centre energy needs, but this may change, says Peter Judge

Solar power has always seemed a good long term bet for renewable energy. After all, pretty much every single Joule of energy we use on the planet comes from the sun originally

The sun’s energy is caught by plants, which make fuels, either through the long process of fossilisation producing oil and gas, or by directly producing wood, or man-made ethanol to burn. Animals’ energy comes from plants, and the sun drives the water cycle which produces hydro-electric energy.

Nuclear power uses energy stored from older suns where the heavier elements are made. Geothermal energy does include energy originating on earth – it is the heat of the earth’s core, but it is maintained at that temperature by radioactive decay inside the earth.

Why is solar power so difficult?

Solar power may be fundamental to our energy needs, but the sun’s raw rays, compared to other forms of energy, have so far proven to be darned difficult to use.

Solar panels have taken a long while to reach marketable quality and government programs have backed the idea that solar will get better – and fostering a UK solar power business could give Britain a head-start in an economy trying to move away from fossil fuels.

But these hopes have been dashed, by the coalition government’s decision to reduce the generous feed-in tariffs which were persuading domestic users to buy into solar power and generate the kind of market which it needed.

However, even if solar did take off, it still faced an obvious problem  – it only works in the day time. Our grid requires continuous power, so it is very difficult to replace fossil fuels with anything intermittent like solar or wind power.

One answer to this problem is, of course, a way of storing excess solar energy until it is needed, using batteries. That would require a massive improvment in battery technology – and there are signs this may eventually emerge.

Google, it seems, feels solar has a way to go. The search giant had funded a research program to make solar energy cheaper than coal, but recently pulled the plug on it, focusing on its core business. However, it is still supporting home solar power, and schemes to use solar in data centres.

IBM, too, is using solar in data centres, though only to supplement other power sources, and provide a small fraction of the sites’ energy needs.

But that will always be the shape of solar use. It can’t replace other sources, but (as with domestic feed-ins) it can displace demand. If managed properly, it could reduce overall demand in the long term.

Continued support from tech giants could keep solar from disappearing behind a cloud of disappearing public support.