1200s A.D. was when people started using magnifying glass to direct the sun’s rays to make fire, but it was not until 1767 before Horace de Saussure, a Swiss scientist, built the first solar energy collector (U.S. Department of Energy, 2004). Solar is the energy type generated by the sun, which is created by nuclear fusion that occurs in the sun (Morse & Turgeon, 2012), and a solar plant converts this energy produced through the sun’s rays into electricity (Schrader, 2010). Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist, discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, and today, photovoltaic plants (popularly called PV) are the most commonly used solar technology with solar thermal systems also catching up (California Energy Commission, 2016).
The use of solar transcends powering homes, warming swimming pools, and powering street lights today (Thiele, 2017). Cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, have deployed solar powered trash and recycling compactors to save millions on trash collections and keep the environment clean.
Power plants are the latest systems projected to be accommodated soon into the information sharing environment to make them smart, efficient and safe. There was a proposition at the 2nd International Conference on Control, Instrumentation, Energy & Communication (CIEC) to develop smart photovoltaics (PVs), where PV monitoring systems can transmit data via wireless technology (Adhya, Saha, Das, Jana, & Saha, 2016). The researchers strongly believe that “using the Internet of Things Technology for supervising solar photovoltaic power generation can greatly enhance the performance, monitoring and maintenance of the plant.”
Solar thermal power generation systems, unlike photovoltaic plants, makes use of the heat produced by the sunlight to produce a high heat temperature needed to produce electricity. Solar thermal systems make use of two main components to capture and direct the heat produced by sunlight onto a receiver to builds steam that helps to feed a turbine and a generator to produce electricity. Solar thermal plants are engineered to be smart, as they have tracking systems that ensures that sunlight directly hits on the surface of the receiver as the earth revolves around the sun throughout the day. There are three main types of solar thermal power plants; Parabolic Troughs, Solar Power Towers, and Solar Ponds – a technology which has been in use since 1984 in Israel to produce electricity (Schrader, 2010).
In the near future, research and development into photovoltaics will unearth the use of new materials and designs to make solar plants smart.
Aside making it significantly affordable and efficient, researchers foresee buildings, clothes and transport systems producing their own clean and safe power. Recent studies published in the Journal of Research Policy, Oxford University, puts the prospects of solar’s global electricity share at 20% by 2027. That looks very promising, considering that solar’s global share of electricity only stands at 1.5% currently. However, cost is dropping (only not as fast as the world wants to see) and it is becoming more accessible to many, but the International Energy Agency is not as optimistic as the Oxford University researchers. They project a global share of renewable energy at only 16% globally, by 2050. What is really holding solar back is the huge infrastructure costs; the plan to build a massive solar infrastructure on the Sahara Desert to provide 15% of Europe’s power hit a dead-end due to the huge cost involved (Mathiesen, 2016).