Solar Energy: Abundant, but Inefficient!

This week I read an article from the University of Colorado website, “Solar Power”, which focused on the abundance and cost of solar energy. What intrigued me about this article was its description of how much solar energy is available, but not really useful to us now. This is due to the fact that the solar panels are simply not efficient enough. However, there is so much solar radiation in our atmosphere, the article claims, that we have 16,000 times our current needs of energy available to us. The only problem is that we cannot efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or store it cheaply. This class has looked a lot at new technologies springing up around coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Coal is very dirty, and hydraulic fracturing presents many dangers of its own as well. In fact, just last week, a train carrying oil from a fracking industry, blew up in West Virginia. This was because it was carrying both coal and oil, which are polluted and non-renewable resources. People around our country are praising the fossil fuel industry for bringing the cost of gas down in recent years. On the other hand though, this article actually informed me that there is far more renewable energy available from the sun than we will ever need. Our current problem in this area comes from photovoltaic panels (See below in Figure 1)

Figure 1: Active Solar Photovoltaics:

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A solar panel uses two layers of silicon with different charges, sandwiched between other kinds of metal to produce an electric current from sunlight. Right now, most solar panels available are only 10% efficient: if the panel absorbs 100 joules of sunlight energy, it only produces 10 joules of electric energy. Therefore, the technology is also expensive! The article shows how 1 kilowatt hour of electricity from coal can cost as little as 10 cents, and the same electricity from a solar panel can cost 50 cents, or as much as 85 cents on a cloudy day.

There has been such a focus of money and energy on coal and oil recently. If those same resources were put towards solar efficiency, solar panels might look a lot more attractive to consumers, and we might be able to tap into the vast resources from the sun.

Are American Wind Farms Helping the World?

To someone who may not know, American Wind Farms are exactly what they sound like; they are large patches of land in America with wind turbines as tall as a 30-story building.  These wind turbines have blades, which are rotating at a speed of 200mph, and provide hundreds of homes with clean and renewable energy. The difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy is that nonrenewable energy cannot be used again, while renewable energy can be recycled as well as used again. Some examples of nonrenewable energy are fossil fuels, natural gas, and coal, while some examples of renewable energy are solar energy, wind energy, and geothermal energy. The importance of using renewable energy is that even though it can be considered to be the most expensive source of energy, it is beneficial to the planet because it is clean. As I mentioned before, wind energy is one type of renewable energy and it is doing wonders around the world, especially in the United States. Over the past four decades, we are using more wind energy and it is providing an increasing amount of energy. Now a days, an average wind farm generates around 50,000 megawatts of energy. Figure 1 is a picture of a American Wind Farm that generates enough energy to support over 100 homes in its neighboring communities.

Figure 1.

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Not only do these Wind Farms help provide the world with clean energy, but they are also helping the economy. While building these wind turbines can be expensive, they are helping save several thousands of dollars in local energy bills. The Wind Farms are also providing 75,000 americans with jobs. These wind turbines are providing a chance for workers from American communities to prosper. American companies are providing more than 65% of the parts needed for each wind turbine. Figures 2 and 3 show the factories where the parts are actually created.

Figure 2.

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Figure 3.

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In addition to this, as wind energy becomes more popular and the demand increases, a uprising worry is if congress will continue to support an important wind energy incentive, known as the Production Tax Credit. The Production Tax Credit provides financial support from the federal government for the development of renewable energy sources. If this incentive expires, then that means that several individuals will be out of jobs. It also means that there will be no chance that wind energy will cover 20% of Americas total energy used by 2030.  Furthermore, if the incentive is passed, then there will be a projected growth in the number of jobs as well as the amount of renewable energy that is used. Therefore, it can be determined that not only is wind energy good for the environment, but it is also good for the economy.

Strides Towards an Energy Efficient World

Energy efficiency is, at its roots, the concept of using and wasting less energy. Many of the most pressing threats to our everyday lives are the results of our (meaning humans) failure to achieve energy efficiency. Of these threats are global warming, diminishing resources, economic turmoil, illness-causing air pollution, reliance on fossil fuel, etc. Examples of energy efficient energy sources include solar energy, wind, and water. Harry Verhaar, head of global and public affairs at Philips Lighting and chairman of the European Alliance to Save Energy, gives a very refreshing and inspiring take on energy efficiency that we should all try to adopt. “Its logical,” he says, “because we simply waste too much. Some people call energy efficiency low-hanging fruit. I would even say energy efficiency is fruit lying on the ground. We only need to bend over and pick it up.” The successful implementation of energy efficiency would ultimately benefit the global community in practically every way possible. Climate change would ease up, our huge rates of pollution would decrease, and our reliance on unsustainable resources such oil, coal, and fossil fuels would be reduced. From an economic aspect, scads of jobs would become readily available in fields such as building upgrades, energy-efficient vehicle manufacturing, and the engineering of energy efficient everyday appliances such as lightbulbs, stoves, houses, etc. Not to mention, the massive weight of an impending economic collapse due to diminishing resources would be lifted from our shoulders. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, we are only decades away from reaching our absolute maximum rate of unsustainable energy usage until we are bound by the law of limitation to cut back.

Figure 1 (http://www.rmi.org/RFGraph-Fossil_fuels_global_production)

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Despite the simplicity of Mr. Verhaar’s fruit analogy, there are many difficult complications that arise from making strides towards energy efficiency. Cultural inertia is a term used to describe the concept that humans are so incredibly adapted to their reliance on coal, oil, and fossil fuel that the sudden transition to using only energy efficient resources would cost unfathomable amounts of money and would bring some of the most influential companies in the world crashing to the ground. Other complications are public skepticism and financial constraints. Quite simply, nobody is sure enough that the transition to energy efficient resources will be worth the massive funding that it requires. Overcoming these hindrances will be far from easy but, whether, gradually or suddenly, we must eventually sever our reliance on unsustainable resources if we want our planet to survive.

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/business/energy-environment/energy-efficiency-may-be-the-key-to-saving-trillions.html?_r=0

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/taking-the-risk-out-of-energy-efficiency

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/energy_resources/energy_rev1.shtml

http://www.rmi.org/RFGraph-Fossil_fuels_global_production