Solar Energy: Worthy Cause?
As of recent, gas prices have steadily been rising once again all over the country. In Orlando, the dollar amount is slowly creeping it way back up to nearly $4; the last time prices reached that high was back in 2008, according to a historical price chart provided by GasBuddy.com. This trend seems to be a constant through out the years and going nowhere fast. Researchers acknowledge that something needs to be done.
With gas being a nonrenewable resource, many people are turning to other alternatives of renewable resources. One such is solar energy — a resource that Florida is no short supply of. However, all renewable resources have their rewards. “At what cost?” we all ask. But the ultimate question is: Do these risks outweigh the benefits of resorting to solar energy?
The usage of nonrenewable resources has been the primary form of energy production throughout history, but efforts to utilize renewable natural resources has only been increasing in recent times. With the amount of global pollution increasing and the amount of nonrenewable resources diminishing, the need for alternative energy sources is ever increasing. Through advancements and developments in technology, the harnessing of nature’s renewable resources has become more prominent and the research behind these alternative energy projects has continued to yield more impressive results.
While cost has been a prevalent issue linked with renewable energy, the development of alternative energy projects and renewable energy has been on a rise in the recent years due to the ever increasing costs of non-renewable fuels, such as natural gas and oil, which the majority of the world relies on for most of the energy demands. Although limited availability and land use impacts have also been issues with the utilization of solar energy, government sponsored research and development as well as tax incentives have provided many opportunities to continue to develop renewable energies and provide American households with innovative ways to be more efficient and sustainable while at the same time reducing costs.
Background and History of Solar Energy
Solar Energy has been around since the inception of the earth, but the harnessing of its power and development into usable applications has just recently been developed into scalable and cost effective alternative solutions. During many centuries B.C. usages of the Sun’s power were utilized to concentrate its rays in order to make fire or warm bathhouses. Furthermore, populations such as the Anasazi, the ancestors of Pueblo people, built their towns and living dwellings facing south in order to attain the winter sun (History of Solar). These have been the humble beginnings of the utilization of Solar Energy.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that scientist Horace de Saussure developed the first solar collector utilized to cook food, and was employed by British Astronomer John Herschel to cook food during his expedition to Africa. But, it wasn’t until 1954 that Photovoltaic technology was fully developed at Bell Labs, through the discovery of silicon photovoltaic cells (PV), which had the capability of converting enough of the sun’s energy to be able to power the average electrical equipment (History of Solar). The initial development of Photovoltaic cells, solar cells that change sunlight directly into electricity, began with a low efficiency of only 4%. Throughout time and research the efficiency kept gradually increasing from 8% in 1957, to 10% in 1959, and 14% in 1960, etc. Not only was Photovoltaic the only technology utilized for harnessing the sun’s energy but solar thermal power plants were also developed to convert solar energy. In 1984, in California’s Mojave Dessert the first commercial parabolic power plant was constructed (Quaschning).
Yet, both of these technologies have their limitations in usage and power output. Photovoltaic are very versatile and can operate in union or independently, even with low solar radiance, but can only operate in the ranges of about one watt to several megawatts. In the other hand, solar thermal plants can output power in the megawatt and kilowatt range but are not as versatile regarding their implementation and can only work efficiently when exposed to direct solar radiance (Quaschning).
Commercial and Widespread Use
During the oil shortages of the 1970’s there was a vast desire for the development and deployment of solar energy technologies as an alternative source of energy throughout the United States. The government focused and increased resources to the Solar Energy research to a budget of 400 million per year (Rochester). New and more efficient development of solar PV cells have been developed over time, but still are very similar to the original designs that sprung up in the 1970’s. Estimates of about 6 to 7 thousand units of PV cell systems are installed in the United States according to the Solar Energy Research and Education Foundation.
During 2002, the inauguration of the Solar Decathlon was showcased in the National Mall in Washington D.C. This international competition allowed universities to come up with innovative ways in which to incorporate energy efficient (Solar Energy) into standard houses in the United States. This event, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, has allowed the increasing interest in renewable energy and has brought together many disciplines to continue to further the efforts to incorporate them into standard American households. This global event has been referenced as the future of the nation’s efforts towards a renewable future and U.S. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, mentioned “The Solar Decathlon highlights President Obama's goal of improving our national security and transforming the economy by using off-the-shelf, clean energy technologies to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil, reduce our carbon emissions, and protect the environment”. He also refers to this competition being able to provide the experience and research necessary to the future generations of “green” engineers which will help lead America into a “clean energy future”. New goals and projects within the field of renewable energy have spawned because of these efforts and the government in 2010 committed to deploy about 20,000 solar PV systems throughout the United States (Manuel).
Overall with the United States’ increased dependence on fossil fuels, which covers about 95% of the energy utilized the need to move to cleaner and renewable sources of energy will become almost inevitable as these limited fuels begin to diminish. As the development of photovoltaic technologies continues to improve and the cost continues to decrease, solar energy as a form of renewable energy will become more accessible and affordable. According to the office of Energy Research and Development, if at least 1% of the building within the United States would be equipped with energy efficient systems that could harness the power of solar energy, then about 30 million barrels of oil could be saved annually.
According to Royal Dutch Shell, in countries such as Denmark and Germany the deployment renewable energies have been exponentially increasing providing 20% of electricity and deploying 14 GW of electricity from renewable sources respectively. Furthermore, interesting estimates of the future of solar energy development by Shell portray that breakthroughs in the areas of renewable energy will be able to provide enough energy that the limitations won’t be the industrial building capacity but instead the accommodation of the vastly new resources. Major technological upgrades to the power distribution system, including power grids and infrastructure, would have to be undertaken in order to appropriately manage, store, and distribute the great amounts of renewable energy that will be produced from alternative energy sources.
Solar Power and the Environment
The biggest concern with any form of energy is its impact on the environment. For instance, with gasoline being the number one transportation fuel used in the United States, what are the dangers that come with this everyday convenience? (U.S. Energy Information Administration) The United States saw one of the hazards of offshore drilling last year during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which took three months to be official sealed. The effects of such a disaster can be long term, so people are working on new ways to use the ocean and other available resources to eliminate these risks.
The environmental effects of solar energy have their pros and cons. The main purpose of solar energy is to find an environmentally friendly alternative to damaging and costly effects of oil and gas. There are several ways that it can do that: solar thermal power plants, solar panels and the lesser-known photovoltaic solar power. But there are researchers and supporters of solar energy who still say it not without fault and risk to the environment.
* Solar energy, unlike other forms of energy, produces no air pollution, water pollution or greenhouse gases. It does this by not releasing carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide or mercury into the air like forms of electrical energy. This means that it also does not contribute to global warming, acid rain or smog. As a result, it also decreases the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. ("Facts about Solar Energy")
* It is a nonrenewable resource despite its limits at night and on cloudy days. However, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (funded by the U.S. Department of Energy), some of the solar panels have backup systems or net metering, which allows you to save electricity and money.
* Solar energy is also generated wherever it is needed, meaning that it’s portable and can be used on a smaller scale. The most common examples are solar panels that are installed on the roofs of houses and various buildings. No additional space is needed for these types of solar energies. Space is a large issue for solar energy, but obviously the concern isn’t needed for more common applications. This also means that the energy is accessible and affordable for anyone.
* Solar thermal power isn’t the only form of solar energy. Photovoltaicpower is “one of the most promising renewable energy sources in the world” ("Alternative Energy"). A photovoltaic cell (PV or solar cell) is a device that converts light energy directly into electric energy. These cells are usually made from silicon, and nowadays they have a conversation rate that is up to 40%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. They are also non-polluting, but in addition they have no moving parts that could break down and need little maintenance and no supervision. These are all advantages over wind power and hydropower who require turbines which are noisy and do require maintenance. ("Alternative Energy")
* Most of this concerns that solar power raises have to do with manufacture and installment of the machines. There are four main concerns: land disturbance/land use impacts, visual impacts, hazardous materials and impacts to water resources. (Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS)
* As far as land disturbance and land use impacts go, there is a concern for wildlife protection. For utility-scale solar power plants, they generally use about one square kilometer for every 20-60 megawatts, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, there are electricity power plants that use as much or more land per unity of energy.
* Visual impacts are subjective. Some large facilities use very reflective material for their solar energy facilities and could be considered intrusive to the nearby area.
* In the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells contain some toxic materials and hazardous chemicals, but it should be noticed that the amount of these waste products come in small amounts. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)
* The U.S. Energy Information Administration also states that some of these solar power plants require water for regular cleaning or cooling the turbine-generator. If water is used from underground wells, then it may affect the ecosystem in some locations.
Theories and research can only show so much proof until there is real life progress. There have been two recent examples in Florida where solar energy has proved to be successful.
An article written in February 2011 for Jacksonville.com talked about an industrial company Alternate Energy Technologies LLC whose solar panels use the sun’s heat “to warm water circulating through tubes, and that in turn heart the water that supplies the home.” By using heat to get hot water could save “a very tangible $1,000 savings” of an electric bill for a family of four. (Turner)
The Daytona Beach News-Journal also reported recently that “there’s enough sunshine during one day in Florida to produce energy to supply the state for one year.” Although, as of right now, solar power only generates 2% of the state’s power, according to the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. This shows that the difference solar energy could make in Florida could save many households thousands of dollars. (Koslow)
Solar Power’s role in the U.S. Total Renewable Energy
Solar energy only accounts for 1% of the total renewable energy in the United States, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. So, while solar energy might not be the answer for the whole country right now, could it be the answer for sunshine states such as Florida? Yes.
Cost is a driving factor in today’s world. As our economy is not thriving, we each individually do what we can to lower our cost of living. Energy is one of the most basic and everyday necessities that we pay for. Thus, it is no surprise that consumers are finding alternative substitutions to lower their energy bill. Solar energy provides consumers with cheaper energy, for a price. “The cost of solar cell energy is still considerably higher than other forms of energy, especially when taking into account the large amount of government funding going into solar” (Shon-Roy). So the question on everyone’s mind is whether solar energy is profitable or a money pit? The answer is complicated, some will benefit greatly while others can take up to 40 years to break even.
“In the U.S., a rule-of-thumb is that an average house consumes electricity at the rate of 1 kW. Since there are about 730 hours in each month and the average price of a kW-hour of electricity is about $.10, an average monthly electric bill should be around $73 for 730 kWh of electricity” (Delvin). However, this seemingly reasonable estimate is for an average house. Floridian’s can attest that their energy needs are somewhat different as the air conditioner is constantly battling the heat during the summer months. Florida electric bills are simply higher and as a result Floridians have turned their wallets to solar energy. With an abundance of sunlight, solar power seems like an ideal way to save money. However, “the installed cost of solar panels runs between $7 to $9 per watt, so a 5 kW system would cost on the order of $35,000-$45,000” (Delvin). Therefore, an $35,000 system would pay for itself after 40 years. However, if their solar panels produce more energy than they use, some electric companies use a system called “net metering” in which they will pay the consumer money for their unused energy. However, if the consumer does not live in an area that receives excessive sunlight it is highly unlikely for their solar panels to collect enough sunlight to produce excess energy. We use energy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and it obviously is not sunny the entire time. Since Florida is quite sunny however, it is more likely for their panels to collect enough sunlight during the day to make a considerable difference. The government provides further incentives. For example, “Congress extended he federal 30 percent tax credit for solar system installation until 2016” (Seltzer). With these incentives and rebates, it is possible to cut the cost of instillation by half and thereby reducing the years needed to make gain to 20.
How to Lower Costs
Since the main appeal of solar energy is to save money, producers have looked in to more economic ways to make solar panels. Polysilicon is the main material used to make the silicon wafers in solar panels. “This material has been pegged as a major cost contributor to the overall PV cell manufacturing, representing 30% or more of the overall cell cost” (Shon-Roy.). Thus, each cell cost is dependent on the material grade of the Polysilicon, the lesser the grade the cheaper the cell. The solar panels themselves are the most expensive part of the process, the installation can vary greatly in price but economical choices are always available. New research has begun in order to lower the cost of the solar panels and cells. “A £4.4m project to develop new photovoltaic (PV) cells could result in cheaper, more efficient solar energy, says Glyndŵr University in Wrexham” (BBC News). With each new discovery the cost in the panels and cells declines making it more and more affordable for consumers to benefit from solar energy.
How to Benefit
As a result, location is still one of the most important factors in the economics of solar energy. Locations such as Florida provide ample amounts of sunlight throughout the day and thus acceptable locations to employ solar energy. Consumers must keep in mind that each solar panel produces about 10 kW/sq. ft. and as such must be able to purchase and install enough panels in order to make a considerable difference. This is not a quick way to lower your energy bill, this is a long term process that will undoubtedly be beneficial as solar energy continues to evolve. As there are many rebates and rewards to consumers from producers including electric companies, installation companies, and the government, homeowners can in fact benefit economically in less time than before but only if they take advantage of all the offers. Furthermore, homeowners must remember that solar energy requires maintenance which can vary greatly. All in all, when done correctly the benefits of solar energy outweigh the drawbacks. Solar energy is economically beneficial, although it is not immediately profitable.
Environmentally and economically solar energy stands to one day be a widespread source of energy. In the past, our government has turned to solar energy to supplement the ever growing need for energy. Now, as the price of gas increases once again, many individuals may seek to find out if solar energy is beneficial for them as well. After researching the subject thoroughly, we as a group have deemed that solar power, although expensive, is worth the time, effort, and expense in the long run. As this resource becomes widespread, the price of installation and cost of cells will decrease as companies compete for lower prices. Monetary and economical benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Solar energy continues to evolve and as more and more uses for solar energy occur it presents more opportunities for individual benefit.
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