Question: How long do you think it will be when people find a sustainable, renewable, efficient source of energy?

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  1. In many ways people already have found all of those things although the answer is more complicated. Different renewable technologies are more suitable for different regions depending on local climate and geography etc. The key is whether they are cheap compared to conventional energy sources. So perhaps it is better to ask the question, how long before renewables become more cost effective than conventional power generation? In some areas of southern Europe, it is already cheaper to generate solar electricity than to buy it from the grid, i.e. the technology has reached ‘grid parity’. Manufacturing improvements, new technologies, increases in efficiency and improvements in durability will all continue to bring the cost of renewables down so grid parity will be reached in more and more places. We haven’t reach grid parity in the UK yet though.

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  2. Renewable and sustainable sources of energy already exist and have been known for a long time. For example, both solar and wind energy have the potential to provide vast amounts of energy, however it is not supplied in a ready to use form. Since we cannot plug our phones, cars, laptops, kettles or Gameboys into wind or light directly we must first convert it into another form. Most commonly, when we talk about “energy” we mean electrical energy for our day-to-day use. And this is where the caveat lies, in the efficiency in which we take energy supplied by these sources, and convert it into usable electrical energy.

    The efficiency of converting energy, and indeed the efficiency of storing it, is a major part of energy materials research. Although we cannot predict the future of this research with certainty, there are many examples of the rapid progress rate of research in these areas. One great example is from the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL) photovoltaic department:

    http://www.nrel.gov/pv/assets/images/efficiency_chart.jpg

    We can see that the efficiency of these solar cells has been steadily increasing from the 1970’s, with huge improvements being made over just the last 40 years (~20 % to 46 %).

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