Solar Power: Our Nation’s Future

solarpanelsAmidst the recent discovery of natural carbon dioxide sinks in deserts, scientists are beginning to analyze the extent to which the Earth’s landscape can reduce emissions given the current rate of CO2 going into the atmosphere. Washington State University researchers concluded that with growing concentration levels, soil will increase their uptake of carbon dioxide over time. Even so, relying on carbon sinks is not sufficient for resolving man-made climate change. Our dependency on fossil fuels results in increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby enhancing the greenhouse effect, which is the trapping of heat radiation in the atmosphere. Thus, global warming is one of the greatest concerns of our time. The surge in intense weather conditions in the United States is not a natural occurrence – a research team discovered through advanced computer models that pollution from China causes intensified cyclones and warmer air in the Pacific to move toward the North Pole. It is imperative for our government to turn focus to harnessing renewable, clean energy from naturally abundant resources. Especially with advancements and successes in efficiently generating electricity from sunlight via photovoltaic (PV) technologies, use of solar power should be encouraged amongst homeowners and companies alike by raising awareness of its advantages.

Green movements such environmentally-friendly cars or recycling are all attempts to reduce our use of fossil fuels, a limited resource. However, electricity accounts for nearly 38% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States and the demand for renewable energy sources should be a priority if we want to, at the very least, slow climate change. By extension, doing so will prevent resource wars. For example, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is far too complex to resolve singlehandedly; however, alleviating factors negatively affecting their well-being will lessen struggles subsequent to the strife. With Russia cutting off gas exports to Ukraine, energy independence and security contributes to the energy conflict as the country scrambles to find an alternative means of power. This can be prevented with combined efforts of leading countries to improve existing technologies to ultimately assist emerging countries and expedite self-reliance globally. The most promising method is solar power, or the conversion of sunlight into electricity, since the source is abundant and universal. Due to its feasibility on both smaller and larger scales, solar power is the best alternative energy to invest in and will hopefully lower emission rates more successfully than other methods.

The most popular technologies for solar power are PV cells. These devices rely on how well the material can emit electrons when light is shone on it. Consequently, solar power opposition typically questions the necessary weather conditions (e.g. no clouds, sunny) for maximum efficiency. That is, since the technology requires sunlight for operation, users are often wary of its potential when the panels do not receive a constant source of direct sunlight throughout the day. A commonly proposed solution is to store solar energy harnessed during times of optimal sunlight, typically around noon, for use when conditions are not ideal.

Luckily, a report on the groundbreaking discovery to implement this process was released by MIT and Harvard University scientists who used the photoswitching phenomenon to essentially have the material act as its own battery. It was found solar energy can be stored for an infinite amount of time and will not emit greenhouse gases in the process. Additionally, although it seems counterintuitive, hotter temperatures from the sun do not necessarily lead to increased electricity generation. Solar panels are, in fact, most efficient in cold, sunny environments. Therefore, utilizing solar power is a matter of carefully planning how the technology is implemented. For example, Germany has at least five times more solar capacity than the United States as of 2012, despite its low average solar potential compared to other countries – that is, there is not much sunlight in Germany and yet, they lead in solar power worldwide. This raises the question of how a country with relatively little sunlight can generate high amounts of electricity via solar power. The answer lies in government policy.

Despite the decrease by 60 percent in solar panel prices, the public is still on the fence with investing in solar energy simply because it is relatively expensive compared to the current means of electricity generation. Perhaps to better push toward alternative energy, our government should begin to shift finances toward different areas of renewable advancement. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the German government allows residents to sell power produced from their personal solar panels to the grid – this is known as feed-in tariffs. This policy encourages renewable energy systems by achieving larger deployment at lowered costs. Recently, the White House is hosting a Solar Summit to commemorate those who have successfully contributed to the nation’s efforts of clean electricity generation in an effort to increase solar power use. Formal recognition from the President will certainly generate interest amongst the public, as it is a considerable achievement for simply switching to clean energy.

On a smaller scale, PV systems for roofs are less expensive and incentives are available in most states to further motivate the public to install solar panels on their own homes and businesses. Tax credits on the solar power system’s cost are offered by the federal government as well as rebate subsidies for companies. Majority of the states give users the option to claim approximately thirty percent of the cost. The American Council of Renewable Energy released a 2012 report stating “[over a thirty year period,] $10,500 tax credit for a residential system can generate an average$22,882 in tax revenue.” Such findings essentially prove the solar investment tax credit saves more than it is costly to taxpayers. Locally, a recent bill is under consideration by Hawaii’s legislature and might grant apartment or condominium residents equal access to generating electricity via solar panels. Previous to this proposed plan, solar panels were generally only available to those who own houses. The difficulty for people living in apartments and condos is the fact that renters cannot install such systems on property they do not own. If the bill is passed, residents are allowed to instead buy a solar panel located on a nearby structure or solar farm and generated power is deducted from the electricity bill. The act of leasing or buying a solar panel will benefit both ends of the contract while also promoting local power generation. Similarly for commercial and industrial use, the solar sector grew rapidly after the Treasury Grant Program and Loan Guarantee Program made it easier for developers to finance solar facilities. Since the introduction of these incentive programs and accessible alternative energy, renewables prevented releasing 1.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Taking advantage of available technologies, consumers will eventually become more self-reliant in terms of energy generation. Continuing this trend of reducing emissions benefits our planet in the long run and progressively weans our dependence on fossil fuels.

As with most power plants, the financial aspect is a factor to consider. The world’s largest solar farm, Ivanpah, received a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. Skeptics are left wondering if the budget will benefit our nation in the future. It should be noted the cost is not only measured by money, but also other areas including jobs and subsequent research and development processes for future applications. What may seem like a huge investment now is miniscule in the future, especially if we can surpass leading renewable energy countries such as Germany and work to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. As of 2010, the solar energy industry in the United States employs more than the coal industry, totaling to over 100,000 people. Even though the United States does not lead in solar power capacity, our country’s industry is a net exporter with $2 billion annually. Once technology advances and becomes more accessible to the public, costs will not be an issue considering a solar power system requires low maintenance and lasts on average for thirty years. Reports even go as far as estimating it would cost the same to produce power with solar energy as it would to build a coal or gas power station. In the best interests of our planet’s health, it would be wisest to proceed with the cleaner option.

Finally, plans to implement solar farms on more massive scales are not receiving the expected support. As opposed to building natural gas plants, solar projects save states over $33 million by avoiding new transmission and distributed lines. Unlike rooftop solar panels, larger scale plants need more land and as exhibited by Ivanpah solar power plant, pose risks to both wildlife and humans. Located in the Mojave Desert in California, the project uses solar thermal technology via mirrors designed to concentrate heat in a tower that will drive a steam-powered turbine for energy generation. The high reflectivity of the plant has been revealed to confuse birds, mistaking the panels for water, and led to the death and injury of 34 birds in September 2013. A few birds were scorched from the sheer heat surrounding the collective towers; however, autopsies reveal majority of the deaths were from force trauma during collision with the solar panels themselves. Pilots blinded when flying overhead filed complaints as well, stating their vision was obstructed from the reflecting mirrors. To minimize deaths, experts are currently looking into mechanisms to repel birds from entering the facility’s area. It is equally relevant to compare mortality rates in a larger context, as “millions of birds die yearly flying into windows and buildings.” Compared to the plant’s small percentage of fatalities, this should not be a reason to halt the construction of these solar plants. Ivanpah alone can power 200,000 homes with a whopping capacity of nearly 400 gigawatts, proving its potential in the alternative energy market.

All in all, solar power systems deserve the investment needed to advance required technologies for implementation. The demand for cleaner and sustainable energy sources is a priority during these times of severe climate changes. Solar power meets the requirements for working toward the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and efficiency. With the newly discovered material allowing energy storage, weather conditions will eventually become less of a worry for users, as it is not necessary for a constant source of sunlight for electricity generation. Moreover, progressively lowered prices for solar panels give residents and smaller companies increased access to self-reliant energy systems. On a larger scale, current solar power plant problems such as bird endangerment and budgeting can be finalized through testing; thus, maximizing the overall system efficiency for mass power distribution. Our prolonged reliance on fossil fuels is hindering support in transitioning to renewable energy. Misinformation and hasty assumptions made by those who oppose renewable energies are the reasons for resistance to investing in cleaner methods. Hopefully, by increasing efforts to raise awareness of solar power advantages, more people will participate in the renewable energy movement. It is time we address the severity of climate change head on by committing to improve and solidify solar power systems for future generations.

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