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.

How Much Do We Know About Fracking?

Many people have heard of fracking and the controversy that surrounds it, but few know what it actually means, or what the environmental cost is. Fracking is a word that has a lot of politics behind it, and triggers a lot of immediate reactions, but many people do not even understand what it is.

Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but burns cleaner than coal or petroleum. Natural gas is used in many domestic and commercial applications. It is composed of simple hydrocarbons, mostly made up of methane. It is traditionally mined from gas fields using wells, but a large amount of gas trapped in shale formations cannot be mined in this way. Fracking allows that gas to be mined. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and proppant (solid material used to keep fractures open) into the shale, causing the shale to fracture and release the gas.

Fracking is a new way of mining natural gas, and there has been little time to see what long term negative effects it has on the environment. There are several specific concerns about fracking’s environmental impact. Fracking uses an estimated 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year. This raises concerns about the impact on drinking water resources and the effect on aquatic ecosystems. Proppant used in the fracking, usually silicone based sand, needs to be mined, and can contaminate groundwater. Various chemicals are also added to the fracking fluid, some of which have very serious health consequences. Pollution from the fracking fluid can seep into drinking water reserves and aquatic ecosystems, threatening both natural and human health. The concerns about fracking are not just theoretical. There are multiple examples of spills like this occurring. In addition to the spills, there is a worrying lack of accountability, with gas companies failing to report the spills to the government.

Natural gas may be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but if mining for it involves fracking, the trade offs may not be worth it. We still do not know the full potential to cause damage to the environment that fracking has, but that has not stopped numerous companies from setting up fracking sites. There over 2 million hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S., and around 95% of new sites use the procedure. To continue this trend of using technology without any consideration for its environmental impact is irresponsible and near-sighted.