Development and Importance of Solar Electricity
|✅ Paper Type: Free Essay||✅ Subject: Environmental Studies|
|✅ Wordcount: 2864 words||✅ Published: 4th Sep 2017|
Noxious gasses, acrid fumes, scarred landscapes, a massive carbon footprint, and a warming atmosphere. These are the consequences of obtaining energy from nonrenewable resources such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum. These are the sources we use to produce electricity, endangering the very planet we live on through their harmful impacts on the environment. These destructive effects include, but are not limited to, the creation of a blanket of carbon dioxide which traps heat in the atmosphere and thus warms it, water and ground contamination from spills and other mishaps, and air pollution.
There is a better answer to obtaining electricity, one which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and has a much, much smaller impact on the environment: the photovoltaic (PV) cell, also known as the solar cell. Because the solar cell has these incredible benefits, our nation should invest much more money into research and development of solar power to generate electricity.
Thanks to “considerable public investment in green energy that came from the U’S, Germany, and China during the Great Recession, recent American and European regulations that have de-incentivized coal power plants [,] competition among manufacturers, and technological know-how” (R. Meyer How Solar and Wind Got So Cheap, So Fast 1), solar energy has become much cheaper, and thus, economically viable. While costs do vary between regions and types of solar panels, the average cost is around 60 cents per watt (R. Meyer How Solar and Wind Got So Cheap, So Fast 1).
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Solar cell technology has been around since 1839 when French physicist “Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar first demonstrated the photovoltaic effect, or the ability of a solar cell to convert sunlight into electricity” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1). Forty-four years later, in 1883, the American inventor Charles Fritts “created the world’s first rooftop solar array in New York” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1). Up to this point, however, the process behind the photovoltaic effect (also known as the photoelectric effect) was not understood. The process continued to elude scientists until 1905 when Albert Einstein “wrote a paper explaining the photoelectric effect” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1). Together, Becquerellar and Einstein paved the way for the development of photovoltaic technology. During the 1950s, the U.S. military “funded research on PV technology’s potential to power satellites” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1), and in 1964 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched its first satellite equipped with solar panels. However, it wasn’t until the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing energy crisis that the United States started to earnestly develop solar energy. The U.S. government’s first step was passing the “‘Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act of 1974′” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1), which created the “Solar Energy Coordination and Management Project, an organization designed to direct agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to improve solar energy technology” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 1). When Jimmy Carter became President in 1977, he “labeled the energy crisis as the ‘moral equivalent of war’ and made energy policy a top priority of his administration” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2). That same year, he created the Department of Energy and pushed through Congress several acts relating to renewable energy use. The goal of Carter’s efforts and those of Congress “was to make solar viable and affordable and market it to the public” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2). In facilitating this goal, “Congress created the commercial investment tax credit (ITC) and the residential energy credit (or residential ITC) to provide financial incentives for the public to purchase solar properties” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2). Unfortunately, the tax credit failed to increase America’s use of solar power, as “solar comprised a negligible amount of electricity generation” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2). However, “declining domestic oil production and rising oil imports throughout the early 2000s” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2) led to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). This act “raised the commercial ITC to a temporary 30 percent rate and reinstated the residential ITC [which had expired in 1985]” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 2). Today, “in addition to tax credits and grants, the government continues to heavily subsidize the industry with research and development, commercialization, and regulatory support” (R. Meyer History of Solar Power 3).
In 1985, total renewable energy production and consumption amounted to 6084 trillion Btu. Out of that amount, less than half trillion Btu came from solar power, less than 0.0008 percent of total renewable energy. In comparison in 2015, total renewable energy production and consumption amounted to 9466 trillion Btu. Out of that amount, 427 trillion Btu came from solar power, about 4.5 percent of total renewable energy. This means from 1985 to 2015 total renewable energy production and consumption increased by 3382 trillion Btu, while in the same time period, solar energy consumption and production has increased by around. 426.5 trillion Btu (US EIA Monthly Energy Review January 2017 151).
Electricity is an extremely important factor of our everyday lives, but we should obtain this essential resource much more responsibly through solar power. Solar power produces significantly less greenhouse gas emissions (more specifically carbon dioxide) and has a very high technical potential.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), greenhouse gases are “gases that trap heat in the atmosphere” (EPA 1). In 2014, 81% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States came from carbon dioxide, which amounted to 556,470,000 metric tons (EPA 1). This carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (such as coal, natural gas, and oil), as well as “solid waste, trees and wood products, and also as a result of certain chemical reactions” (EPA 1). According to the EPA, 37% of carbon dioxide produced comes from generation of electricity (EPA 1). If our nation used solar power to generate electricity, the amount of carbon dioxide we produce would drastically decrease, as “the carbon footprint of the solar industry is much, much smaller than that of the oil or gas business” (R. Meyers The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). This is made possible because the energy put into making solar panels, such as “quart and copper be[ing] mined. The raw materials be[ing] converted into wafers, then [being] encased in protective material Has the solar industry really saved any energy at all?” (R. Meyers The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts). Researchers at the University of Utrecht and the University of Groningen have determined that the answer is yes, using a “type of research called ‘lifecycle analysis’, which investigates the total environmental impact of a product over time” (R. Meyer The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). According to Meyers, “this kind of research is tricky: researchers must find and calibrate years of economic and energy data, collected across 40 years, in many different countries, with different goals in mind” (R. Meyers The Solar Energy Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). Scott Hershey, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Olin College, stated in an email that “their [the researchers’] methods are solid, but this type of analysis is fraught with assumptions” (R. Meyer The Solar Energy Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). While exact numbers are not known relating to how much carbon dioxide solar power produces, it is known that it is much less than amounts from nonrenewable sources. However, this carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere by being absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle. Unfortunately, all plants have a limit to how much carbon dioxide they can absorb, and all the plants in the world cannot absorb all the carbon dioxide just the U.S. produces (EPA 1).
Solar power produces much less carbon dioxide than power plants burning fossil fuels, and there is very high technical potential. Technical potential refers to “the achievable energy generation of a particular technology given system performance, topographical limitations, environmental, and land-use constraints” (Lopez, Roberts, Heimiller, Blair, Porro 1). In other words, it is the amount of energy a technology can produce within strict parameters. The process for generating these technical potential estimates is very exact, requiring complex calculations and surveying of the land. However, there are three different types of solar technologies, and the technical potential for each drastically varies. The three different types of solar technologies are utility-scale PV, rooftop PV, and concentrating solar power (CSP). According to NREL, utility-scale PV is generation of electricity through “large-scale PV” (NREL 3). However, NREL has estimated that 3,212,324 km2 of land is available for utility-scale solar production in the U.S. (Anthony Lopez, Billy Roberts, Donna Heimiller, Nate Blair, and Gian Porro 10,11), out of 9,833,517 km2, which is the total land area of the United States (The World Factbook 1). This means 32.66% of U.S. land is suitable for production of electricity, which could produce up to 282,844,911 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity (Anthony Lopez, Billy Roberts, Donna Heimiller, Nate Blair, and Gian Porro 10, 11). In 2015, the United States produced 4.103 trillion (4,103,000,000) kilowatt hours (KWh) of electricity, which is equal to 4,103,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity (Philipp Beiter, and Tian Tian 7)[i]. In other words, using just utility-scale solar power plants, we could produce almost 68 percent of all the energy we consume using just solar power!
However, many fossil fuel executives and politicians are opposed to solar power, among other reasons, because they say that it is costly and the construction of the solar panels still cause emissions. These critics are correct: solar power is still costly and the manufacture of solar power does create emissions. However, historically, prices today are much lower than those at the turn of the century. In an email from Jenny Chase, the head of the solar department at Bloomberg New Energy Financial, she stated that reductions in the cost of solar panels have to do with the experience curve. This means that “the more of something we do, the better we get at it” (Robinson Meyer How Solar and Wind Got So Cheap So Fast 2). Cost cutbacks also have to do with manufacturers improving their fabrication of materials in photovoltaic cells, including an essential material called polysilicon. “Prices for polysilicon got as high as $400 per kilogram. That enticed more manufacturers to get into the industry, creating a supply glut and a price crash” (Robinson Meyer How Solar and Wind Got So Cheap So Fast 2). As a result, current prices are much lower than prices from years ago.
While solar panels themselves create very few greenhouse gas emissions, their production can, depending on where they are produced. According to Robinson Meyer, “many solar panels are manufactured in Europe and China” (Robinson Meyer The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). However, the environmental situations in these two regions are drastically different, because “China relies on coal burning for much of its electricity, and it has fairly lax environmental protections. The EU [European Union], on the other hand, already heavily relies on clean energy, and it has a large and entrenched environmental bureaucracy” (Robinson Meyer The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 2). This means that solar panels produced in China are more than likely produced in factories “require a lot of energy and produce relatively dirty emissions” (Robinson Meyer The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 3. Meanwhile, in Europe, factories producing solar panels require “relatively little energy and produce cleaner emissions” (Robinson Meyer The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts 3). However, China has toughened its environmental protection laws, as they attempt to curb pollution. This means that in the future, China may produce solar panels with fewer emissions.
If you don’t believe solar power is the better choice for producing our electricity, there are other options to choose from that still protects our environment, including wind, geothermal, tidal, hydroelectric, and biomass. However, if none of those options suit you either, then think about the consequences of using nonrenewable sources. Pollution. Changes in global weather patterns. Flooding. Drought. Desertification. Health consequences. These consequences spell out the destruction of the planet we live on. It may take years, but with continuous reliance on fossil fuels, these effects are inevitable. We still have a chance to turn around, by using solar power, or other forms of renewable resources. Yes, this would require sacrifices and change. It would require courage to go against the status quo. It would require risk. But if we chose to use solar power to generate electricity, we could make the world a little bit better. For ourselves, our world, and our posterity.
Beiter, Philipp, and Tian Tian. “2015 Renewable Energy Data Book.” 2015 Renewable Energy Data Book | Department of Energy. U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE), Nov. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017. <https://energy.gov/eere/analysis/downloads/2015-renewable-energy-data-book>.
Bolinger, Mark, and Joachim Seel. “Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States.” Electricity Markets and Policy Group. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Aug. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017. <https://emp.lbl.gov/publications/utility-scale-solar-2015-empirical>.
“History of Solar Power.” IER. U.S. Department of Energy (U.S. DOE), 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017. <http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/history-of-solar-power/>.
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Meyer, Robinson. “The Solar Industry Has Paid Off Its Carbon Debts.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Mar. 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/the-solar-industry-has-paid-off-its-carbon-debts/510308/>.
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[i] The actual report gave the amount of energy in quadrillion Btu, but all my other sources gave it in terms of watts, so in this case, I converted Btu to watts.
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