“Do you know that the solar energy that strikes the Earth’s surface for one hour is enough to feed the world’s current electricity needs for one year?” asks John Cleese of Monty Python fame in a new, hour-long documentary, The Power of the Sun. “So why haven’t we gone solar already?” he continues. “I mean, it’s pollution free; there’s no global warming; there’s no dependence on foreign oil powers; it’s decentralized, so it’s virtually terrorist-proof; and effectively there’s an infinite supply.”
The film tours the history of solar power, from the controversy over the wave and particle theories of light to the first solar-powered batteries made at Bell Labs in 1954 to current developments on solar panels. Interviews with researchers guide the audience through the science and show some of the ways solar power is used today, such as on satellites and other spacecraft, in lighting at remote airports, and for cooling the vaccines carried by camels through the desert. Solar energy is a $7 billion industry, and it’s growing 30%–35% a year, according to the film. A 22-minute companion film focuses on the science of silicon solar cells and is intended for high-school students and college freshmen with a physical sciences bent. The $500 000 it cost to make and distribute the films came from state, private, and federal sources. A DVD with both films can be purchased for $10 at http://www.ucsbstuff.com.
The Power of the Sun was the brainchild of solar energy historian John Perlin and Walter Kohn, a Nobel laureate in chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, some of whose work is related to solar materials. Kohn’s assistant knows Cleese, which is how the British comedian and actor became the narrator for the longer film; a high-school teacher narrates the short one.
Kohn says he hopes the films will make “a small contribution” to the world’s energy problems. “I am a member of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee to the Department of Energy, so I had a front-row view of what was happening nationally and internationally concerning energy,” he says. “And I was getting terribly worried.”
“Overall demand [for energy] is still rising, and it’s clear that it has very negative results—most dramatic are global warming and the melting of the arctic ice caps and glaciers. It’s happening in front of our eyes,” continues Kohn. Toward the end of the film he says, “I am convinced that energy is one of the make-or-break challenges of our times. Unless we put our minds to it, the second half of the century is going to be the beginning of a worldwide disaster. On the other hand, if we do put our minds to it, I am convinced we can look forward to a better future. And solar energy is going to be part of that solution.”