Solar Power

The type of energy you choose to consume can have a significant impact on the environment. Choosing solar power and other sources of renewable and sustainable energy will help to protect the environment and to reverse the progress of climate change around the world.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that increasing solar and wind power to achieve 35 percent penetration of energy production would reduce carbon emissions by 25 to 45 percent. This reduction would have the same impact on the environment as removing 22 to 36 million cars from the road, which could make a big difference in the progress of global warming and climate change for the entire planet.

NREL says that in one hour, the energy from the sun's rays exceeds the annual energy requirements for the entire world. By capturing this energy and converting it into usable power, we could potentially eliminate nearly all demand for fossil fuels.

Types of Solar Power Technologies

The Solar Energy Industries Association lists three basic types of solar technology that are in use today:

Photovoltaics are designed to create electricity directly from the sun's rays. This type of technology is used in solar calculators and illuminated road signs. Photovoltaic arrays can also be implemented to provide electric power for businesses and homes. The solar panels found on private residences and on commercial buildings are examples of photovoltaic technologies in action.

According to the Solar Energy Technologies Office, concentrating solar power (CSP) systems are designed to use mirrors to collect and concentrate solar rays onto specialized receivers. These systems produce large amounts of electricity for utilities and power plants. Because of the size and cost of concentrating solar power production equipment, it is not generally used for individual businesses or homes.

Solar heating and cooling (SHC) systems use thermal energy harvested from the sun's rays to heat and cool water and interior spaces. Since about 72 percent of the energy used in the average U.S. home is devoted to space heating and cooling and water heating, using renewable solar energy to meet these needs can reduce the carbon footprint for families across the country.

Additionally, passive solar technologies are in use in buildings and homes across the United States and around the world. NREL lists four basic components that are necessary to implement these passive solar technologies successfully:

• An aperture constructed of glass or another transparent material is needed to allow sunlight to pass into the building to provide light and heat.

• Concrete, brick, stone or tiles are used to provide thermal mass, which absorbs heat and thermal energy from sunlight and from the interior spaces of the building.

• A distribution system is also necessary to transfer heat from storage locations to other areas of the building. Radiating, conducting and convection systems are the most commonly used ways to distribute heat.

• Control systems may include shades, overhangs and other methods that can block heat from entering through the aperture during warmer times of the year.

How Does It Work?

While concentrating solar power systems are complex and vary depending on the area in which they are installed, smaller systems are more standardized and use the same methods for producing electricity for homes, businesses and for supplying local electrical grids.

The semiconductor materials used in photovoltaic systems absorb energy from the sun's rays and convert it into electrical energy by generating particles known as electrons. The electrons produced create electrical current, which then passes through an inverter where it is converted from direct current or DC to alternating current (AC), which can be fed into the electrical grid or used to power appliances and devices inside the home or building. Photovoltaic cells are connected together to create the modules and panels that are found on many homes and businesses across the United States.

Solar heating and cooling systems work on many of the same principles as heat pumps. Heat from the sun's rays is absorbed by collection systems and then transferred to interior spaces through a distribution system or into water. Reflection systems are used to retain heat and to concentrate it in water or other collection materials. To create colder temperatures for indoor air, solar open-loop air conditioning systems usually use moisture-absorbing materials that create evaporative cooling. Scientific journal Nature points to solar thermal cooling as a solution for the increasing demand for air conditioning around the world. By 2100, Nature estimates that the electricity needed to maintain cool indoor temperatures will have increased to 30 times that needed in 2000.

These solar technologies can significantly reduce the carbon footprints and energy use for homes and businesses around the world. This can, in turn, lower the amount we pay for heating and cooling and for electricity.

Average Costs for Solar Power

After the value of federal tax incentives is figured into the cost, Consumer Affairs estimates that an average solar panel installation will run about $12,000. Smaller panel installations may cost only $5,000. Tier 1 solar panel systems from established manufacturers can cost $40,000 or more.

Costs can vary widely from state to state and city to city. In general, however, properly sized and installed solar energy systems can lower your energy bills by as much as 75 percent. Consumer Affairs notes that most solar panel installations begin paying for themselves in seven years or less. Costs have come down considerably in the last decade and are expected to continue to fall as the technologies become more affordable and accessible.

Solar power can be a cost-effective choice for homes and businesses. This is especially true in areas that receive plenty of sun and those with higher-than-average power costs. The financial savings, however, are only a small part of the benefits provided by solar power. We have explained the principles and processes of solar energy. Our next step is to demonstrate the value that solar power has for the environment and the Earth as a whole.

Fossil Fuels Still Dominate Energy Sector

Much of the energy produced in the United States is created using fossil fuels. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lists crude oil, natural gas and coal as some of the most commonly used fossil fuels. These fuel sources present some real issues for the environment and contribute to climate change and global warming when burned to produce energy.

Crude oil, also known as petroleum, supplied about 37 percent of the energy consumed in the United States in 2019. Natural gas accounts for 32 percent of consumption, with coal rounding out the fossil fuel lineup at 11 percent. Fossil fuels produce about 80 percent of all energy consumption in the United States.

By contrast, renewable energy provides only about 11 percent of the power needed in the United States. While this percentage is on the rise, finding ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels and to increase power production using renewable and sustainable energy sources can have a significant positive impact on the environment.

How Your Energy Choices Affect the Environment

Fossil fuels are responsible for damage to the environment during every stage of extraction, processing and use. The Union of Concerned Scientistsnotes that coal mining and oil drilling both cause serious damage to the environment:

• Coal mining in underground shafts can cause serious long-term health problems for miners and puts these workers at risk from unexpected shaft collapses and fires. Surface mining is devastating to the biosystems where this activity occurs. Earth and rock can be dumped into streams and other areas, effectively burying areas in which animals and plants make their home. Surface mining activities can also allow toxic chemicals to pollute the water table, which can cause serious health issues for humans who then drink water from these sources.

• A great deal of recent public attention has been focused on the practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This extraction method uses water to fracture underground geologic formations. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that about three to six million gallons of water is necessary to perform hydraulic fracturing on a single well. To put this into perspective, one million gallons of water would fill about 25,000 bathtubs and would take up an area about 267 feet long, 10 feet deep and 50 feet wide. This water is contaminated with up to 60,000 gallons of chemicals, which effectively renders water used in fracking unusable for any other purpose.

• Oil wells also release methane into the atmosphere. Methane is the main component of natural gas and is a greenhouse gas. While capture techniques exist for reclaiming methane and natural gas for use as fuel, The World Bank estimates that about 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are still flared or burned every year as part of the oil production process. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 31 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was consumed in 2019. We can see that the natural gas wasted in the extraction process accounts for about one sixth of the amount consumed by U.S. homes and businesses.

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified several chemicals produced when fossil fuels are burned, including nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Nitrogen oxide emissions are contributing factors to smog and to acid rain, both of which can have significant effects on human and animal health. Both nitrogen oxides and ammonia can infiltrate the water table to affect the quality of drinking water and to injure animals that depend on clean water to live.

• Transporting crude oil and petroleum products also takes a toll on the environment. The fuel needed to move these materials is only part of the story. Oil spills have caused severe issues for marine wildlife and fishing industries in the areas in which they occurred. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, for example, created an oil slick about the size of the state of Oklahoma in the Gulf of Mexico. It ultimately cost the fishing industry about $94.7 million in 2010 alone.

• On July 6, 2013, the Lac-Megantic oil train derailment [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42548824] destroyed the downtown area of a small Canadian community and claimed the lives of 47 people. This is far from an isolated incident, though it does represent the greatest loss of life from a single oil train derailment to date.

• According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from fossil fuel emissions accounted for approximately 75 percent of all the greenhouse gases produced by human activity in 2018. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will have a significant impact on the buildup of greenhouse gases that can contribute to global warming.

Fossil Fuels vs. Solar Energy

The World Resources Institute has released figures indicating that when renewable energy sources like solar power are made available, they replace energy produced by burning fossil fuels. This is important for a variety of reasons:

• Solar energy is cost-effective. While initial costs for implementing solar power can be significant, these solar installations will typically pay for themselves over time. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, can only be consumed and do not produce added value for consumers who choose to use these power sources.

• Solar power does not create significant impacts on the environment during its production and use. According to the Energy Information Administration, the environmental impact of solar power plants is usually limited to the areas closest to these large-scale power plants. This is in sharp contrast to the significant effects of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels.

• Solar power can reduce or eliminate dependence on other countries for the power needed for businesses and homes in the United States. The sun is a resource that is freely available around the world to all who choose to take advantage of its power.

Major Solar Power Projects

Solar power has already proven itself as a viable source of power for homes and businesses in this country:

Invenergy is planning the largest solar power plant in the world in northeastern Texas. When it is completed, it will produce 1,310 megawatts of solar and wind power for customers that will include Google, Home Depot and Honda.

• Currently, theSolar Star Power Plant by SunPower is producing 579 megawatts of power and is listed as the largest solar farm in operation. It is located in Rosamond, California, and is capable of powering about 255,000 homes with its 1.7 million solar panels.

Topaz Solar is located in San Luis Obispo County in California. It produces 550 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power about 160,000 average homes.

The Energy Information Administration predicted in January 2020 that solar and wind energy would account for more than three-quarters of the added electric capacity for western states in 2020, with about 13.5 gigawatts of solar capacity coming online during that calendar year. The Department of Energy estimates that this is enough power to light up 1,485 million LED lights and to power 27,000 Corvette Z06 vehicles.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of fossil fuels and replacing these energy sources with clean, renewable power will provide real benefits for people, animals and the environment as a whole. Solar power is an important part of the equation and can provide added help in taking on energy challenges in a responsible way now and in the future.