Outside: We live in a solar-powered world

Published 3:05 pm Monday, July 17, 2023

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By Steve Roark


Solar power normally conjures up visuals of black panels that capture the sun’s energy to power a home or outdoor device. The truth is that almost every energy source we use began with solar power.

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Humans and the animal kingdom in general eat food for energy. You may choose to get that energy by eating say a T-bone steak with a side salad. The steak came from a mammal that got its energy from grass, which got its energy from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis. Same goes for the salad.

We drive to work in an automobile fueled by gasoline. Gasoline is a petroleum product that was formerly massive amounts of dead plants and animals that through geological processes decomposed into underground pools of oil. As mentioned, plants get their energy to grow from the sun, and therefore oil is a derivative of sunshine.

Flip on a light switch. The illuminated bulb gets its energy from a power plant that uses steam generators powered by burning coal. Coal is another fossil fuel that started out as living plants that grew via sunlight for energy. If your light bulb gets lit up via a hydroelectric power plant, it’s still solar produced. The water held back by the dam started out in the ocean, where solar heating evaporated some of the water, which floated into the atmosphere as vapor. This wet air travels from the Gulf of Mexico, across Texas and Louisiana, and eventually over our area, where it falls as rain. Some of that rain enters a river with a dam that builds up enough water pressure to then push through a big pipe and turn a turbine that powers your home. Again, the origin is the sun.

Natural gas, firewood, every energy source I can think of ultimately comes from the sun, except two: nuclear and geothermal. It strikes me that since nature uses solar power so well, perhaps we should follow suit and use it more directly than we presently are. Burning fossil fuels causes a lot of problems that converting sunlight directly into electricity would solve. Solar heated homes are getting to be more common, and ought to be given serious consideration by homebuyers.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in east Tennessee.