By helping to propel an airplane around the world recently, solar power took what some would consider a quantum leap into the future — one that includes less use of fossil fuels.
The flight of Solar Impulse 2, which this week completed a 25,000 mile journey across Europe, Asia and North America, captured the public's imagination and raised a tantalizing question that has long been the source of mere speculation. If the sun can play a role in aerial circumnavigation, can it live up to its billing as a large-scale energy source?
The answer, according to some, appears to be yes.
After years riddled with false starts and high-profile failures, it appears the sun is indeed beginning to shine on solar power, as even oil and other fossil fuel intensive companies ratchet up their investment in sustainable energy. A recent study by Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy said worldwide government spending on clean energy topped $10 billion per year as of 2015.
Numerous plans are already underway to bolster the power and reach of sustainable energy — the largest being China's $50 trillion plan to create a global electricity network that will curb carbon emissions.
The idea of a global energy grid — long considered a holy grail of sorts by conservationists — has been bandied about for years. In fact, a number of alternative energy initiatives are underway, given new impetus by last year's global climate accord as well as trends that favor the use of renewables. At last year's climate accord in Paris, 20 countries pledged to double their investment in clean energy within five years.
In the current environment, "it's less about making additional technological breakthroughs, but about taking what's out there and pairing it up" with existing initiatives, Ulrich Spiesshofer, president and CEO of ABB told CNBC in a recent interview. ABB's solar division was one of the companies that contributed to Solar Impulse 2's flight around the world.
Moves to improve solar efficiency — including concentrated solar power, a method that allows sun rays to be stored for use even at night — have the potential to produce "a paradigm shift," Spiesshofer said.
The former management consultant added that it was possible to "decouple growth" from activities that frequently create a Hobson's choice between economic feasibility and safeguarding the environment.
"Renewable power generation is becoming very much attractive economically and is effective," Spiesshofer told CNBC. "The combination of solar with hydro power and [increased storage capacity] is really starting to change the world," he said.