Most people are familiar with solar power because of the panels we see installed on the roofs of homes. However, solar technology now has a host of applications beyond domestic energy supply and even represents the future of Grand Prix racing.

Launched in September 2014, Formula E is the electric counterpart to Formula 1. Less than a year later, the final race of the season in London was the first in the world to run 200kW (kilowatts) engines from batteries that had been regularly charged by the sun. Even the safety and medical cars ran on solar-powered batteries. Once the issue of storage is overcome, the aim is to have the cars run constantly using photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight directly into electricity.

No mere flight of fancy

Solar cells already power satellites orbiting the Earth, providing signals for our TVs and telephones, GPS navigation and weather forecasting, not to mention military and surveillance applications. The International Space Station runs on power from large solar arrays and aeroplanes could be next.

In July 2016, Solar Impulse II, an entirely solar-powered plane, completed the first round-the-world flight, flying more than 25,000 miles without fuel. The previous month, Facebook had announced the first successful test flight of a high-altitude solar plane, the Aquila drone. Facebook plans to use the Aquila to bring internet access to remote areas.

New world powers

Solar energy is already working on a massive scale internationally. In India, Cochin International Airport (CIAL) which serves the city of Kochi and the state of Kerala, now operates entirely on solar energy harvested from 46,000 panels. Early in 2016, 23,000 solar panels were connected up on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir at Walton-on-Thames, creating Europe’s largest floating solar power farm. The electricity generated powers Thames Water utility’s treatment plants providing clean drinking water for 10 million people.

In the UK, we currently generate only 1.5% energy from the sun, but progress is being made across the world. This year, the world’s largest plant, Noor Concentrated Solar, came online at Ouarzazate in Morocco. Generating 160 MW (megawatts), at first it will provide 650,000 local people with power. The long-term aim is to increase capacity to 580MW and export power to Europe. Even this output is dwarfed by that of China, however, which leads the world by generating a total of 45,500 MW.

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