(MENAFN - Arab News) Ancient civilizations around the world worshipped the sun as a visible manifestation of a life-giving celestial force and as humankind developed, veneration and myth eventually gave way to curiosity and scientific inquiry.
Early thinkers even sought to harness the power of the sun to address their basic needs at the time, such as lighting fires and defending themselves.
We have since evolved and so have our priorities. Today's global concerns - such as energy security, economic development and halting the impact of environmental degradation - are very different from the seemingly rudimentary needs of our ancestors and while our priorities have changed, we can still look to the sun for solutions.
Consider this: every hour, the sun beams more energy onto our planet than we need to satisfy our total power needs for an entire year. If fully harnessed, solar power has the potential to guarantee universal energy security. This, in turn, would have a catalytic influence on sustainable economic development, job creation and on efforts to protect our planet.
While a futuristic vision of the Earth developing into a solar-powered utopia may be far-fetched for now, tapping into the power of the sun for large scale generation of electricity is very much a reality.
The discovery of the photovoltaic (PV) effect, by the French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel over a century-and-a-half ago, led to the realization that electricity could be generated by exposing certain materials such as cadmium-telluride or silicon - to sunlight.
This, in turn, has created a global industry dedicated to making solar power more cost-effective and, consequently, more accessible.
Over time, solar has emerged as an important component of the global power generation portfolio, offering a cost-competitive supplement to traditional carbon-based fuels, while also providing a hedge against fuel-price fluctuations.
Early challenges, such as high costs and low yields have been overcome with innovative solutions and solar power has never been as economical or reliable as it is today.
Utility-scale solar power projects are already making increasingly significant contributions to electricity generation efforts around the world.
Here, in the Middle East, our leaders are also looking to the sun for sustainable domestic energy generation.
Saudi Arabia has already announced plans to install 41 gigawatts - equivalent to the power produced by 41 nuclear power plants - of solar power over the next two decades.
The motive for this ambition is purely pragmatic: as the country's population and economy grows, so too will the demand for electricity.
In fact, according to government estimates, demand for electricity generation will exceed 120 GW in 2032. On the face of it, the push toward renewable energy sources, such as solar, in the Middle East is paradoxical.
The region accounts for the bulk of global oil exports and is home to more than half of the world's recoverable crude reserves.
Many countries in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have little obvious need for renewables, their large hydrocarbon resources being more than sufficient to cover domestic power requirements for the immediate future.
However, consider this: according to the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the demand for fossil fuels in the Kingdom is estimated to grow from 3.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2010 to 8.3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2028. Simple arithmetic shows that the opportunity cost - the cost of domestically consuming hydrocarbon resources at subsidized rates, instead of exporting them in raw or processed form is tremendous.
It's clear that, from an economic perspective, investing in renewable energy helps to reduce the consumption of valuable oil and natural gas for power generation and to free up resources for export.
From an environmental perspective, the Middle East has some of the highest CO2 emissions on the planet and solar power, combined with other renewable energy sources, can make a significant contribution toward efforts to reduce the region's carbon footprint.
Finally, when looked at in a social context, economic growth and reduced emissions both contribute toward improved quality of life.
The potential for harnessing the power of the sun, to address some of our most pressing challenges, remains near unlimited.
In addition to utility-scale power projects, the immediate future could see solar energy being used to power desalination plants, which account for a large portion of the Middle East's electricity consumption; large infrastructure projects, including stadiums being built as countries in the region prepare to host mega sporting events; and much more.
While a look further into the future may well reveal a solar-powered utopia and the boundless possibilities that may come with it, the fact is that our needs will continue to evolve and it would be safe to assume that the sun and the energy it generates, will always be a part of the solution.