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Solar: For Better or For Worse?

Renewable energy, what is that? Many people talk about being clean or sustainable, but are they really? Is it really worth it to spend thousands of dollars on renewable energy just to save a few carbon molecules from entering the atmosphere? How much do you know about renewable energy?

 

The facts, good and bad:

 Now we can dive into the facts of solar energy. Solar is the fastest growing renewable source in the world, but in the US, it only accounts for 1.3% of electricity production. The leader is fossil fuels, at 62.7%. Why is this? Solar is expensive, costing anywhere between $15,000-$30,000 for a system producing 8 kilowatts of power. This is a killer for most people when they consider solar, but the US is doing work to decrease these prices. Solar panels also take up a lot of space, whether it be the ground or roofs. Panels cannot be stacked on one another and the area must get optimum solar exposure for the panels to be effective. Often, companies will buy power from “solar farms”, which dedicate land space in areas away from cities to installing thousands of solar panels. This allows for a huge streamline of heat and energy to be collected, then used to create electricity. The downside of this is decreased land for agriculture and living space for humans.

 One of the biggest problems with solar energy currently is the lack of battery to store created solar energy. Similar to wind, solar must be consumed when created because we have not created a battery or storage unit that will hold the energy as we have for coal and oil. This limits when solar-powered electricity can be accessed, during the day only. Many houses are now being built to naturally absorb solar heat by facing the sun when it is rising and using concrete floors to trap heat. While this is not solar panels and electricity creation, it is a start towards going solar.

 Now that we’ve discussed some of the downsides of solar energy, let’s talk about the pros. Solar energy cannot be overused and will not run out;  therefore, once we capitalize on efficient building of solar panels and harvesting, we can power our world as long as we need to. Solar panels may be expensive to install, but in recent years, the US (national and state) has offered subsidies for companies and tax cuts for homeowners who use solar power to generate electricity. This will allow for people to install solar panels easily for everyday use and do so cost-effectively. For more information on these tax credits, please check out this EnergySage article.

Solar is making headway in all sorts of daily life necessities. Solar power can be used to heat water, homes, distill water, power towns, and even power satellites. This renewable source can replace all our current fossil fuel powered endeavors in a clean and timely fashion. Unlike fossil fuels, there is no negative effect in nature when it comes to solar power. Harvesting sunlight will not damage the environment or emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The UV rays from the sun are already hitting earth, so channeling their power into electricity should be common sense. Solar panels are becoming more technologically advanced, such as the transparent solar panel window technology discussed in this articleThese solar panels “use materials to pick up UV rays, which are guided to the edge of the surface they are on for it to be converted into electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells”. With this technology, windows in building can begin to be replaced, thus eliminating heat waste and need for fossil fuel power. Solar technology is constantly improving, and all we have to do is take advantage of the big ball of fire keeping us alive.

 

In my community:

 For my project, I am looking closely at my school and studying the solar panel use and how effective it is. I will be presenting the facts of Lovett’s solar energy to a middle school class, asking them questions and fielding their own. My school, Lovett, has 234 solar panels powering part of our elementary school and the maintenance building. I interviewed our maintenance director about the efficiency, reliability, and future endeavors of our schools renewable source. When asked about how much of the school they power, it is “merely 1% of the buildings”, and this is because of the location, amount of sun, and number of solar panels we have. Solar power can be harnessed, but the problem is the efficiency of the conversion. Roughly 33% of the sun’s heat is converted to electricity, and with buildings that are running constantly, this conversion is not efficient enough with the limited number of solar panels. Living in Atlanta, sun exposure is also a limiting factor because of frequent cloud cover and location in relation to the sun. On average, Atlanta only gets 217 days with sun a year. But Lovett does not measure efficiency, only kilowatts of power. “The canopy produces 5kw a day, and the warehouse produces 50kw” stated our maintenance director, “The biggest limit is roof space and cost.”

Where did Lovett get the funds for panels in the first place? I interviewed my friend in charge of “Lovett’s Environmentally Responsible Investment Group” or LERIG to find out more.  LERIG is a group of students at my school who are given $50,000 a year to invest in fossil fuel free companies. They present their choices and research to the Board of Trustees, and when asked about the qualifications, the leader explained, “Typically if the company is fossil fuel free or doesn’t harm the environment it qualifies. We have a few companies that are specifically renewable energy companies. but we also own a Chinese telecommunications company”. I asked him if they were involved with the solar panels, but they are not. Our other student environmental group, Green Team, was the spearhead behind this movement towards green energy at Lovett. In 2015, the first set of panels were installed to power part of the Elementary School. In 2016, the next set were installed for the maintenance building. This investment was costly, and does not appear to be expanding in the near future, according to the maintenance director.

 Although this project is at a standstill, I still wanted the information to get out to our school in a personal way. The main part of my project is to teach a middle school class about solar energy by finding out what they know and showing them the power of solar. Because they are the next generation of students, they must understand at an early age the importance of renewable energy and how Lovett must move towards this.

 My plan is this: first, find out what they know, ask them questions and get them engaged and present them information on solar power and its technology; second, show them the solar panels at their school and what they are powering, allow them to talk to the maintenance director and ask their own questions; third, get them talking to me and each other, what can they do in high school that will influence Lovett to make more changes towards renewables?

 I want to be able to engage my community and school about how important renewables are and the importance of transferring from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. I want to keep showing people the benefits of solar and how much progress is already being made, and the key is to start with the younger generations and get them engaged and excited.

 

In your community:

 Now, what kind of solar innovations are going on in your life? How is it that solar is the fastest growing renewable energy source yet hardly noticed? Think about your school, home, friends, and community and what technology they are using for energy. Is it solar? Is it another type of renewable source? Share your ideas below and connect to others around the world! Feel free to also add comments about places that are in the “Green Movement”. Maybe you can find inspiration from someone else! 

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Sources:

Rountree, J., April 16th 2018, email with Karem, C.

Atkinson, J., April 15th 2018, email with Karem, C.

Cuthbertson, A., October 24th 2017, Transparent Solar Panels Could Harvest Energy from Windows and Eventually Replace Fossil Fuels, http://www.newsweek.com/fossil-fuels-transparent-solar-panels-harvest-energy-windows-msu-691308

Matasci, S., March 6th 2018, Why the Solar Tax Credit Extension is a Big Deal in 2018, https://news.energysage.com/congress-extends-the-solar-tax-credit/

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, accessed April 18th 2018, Solar Energy in the United States, https://www.energy.gov/eere/solarpoweringamerica/solar-energy-united-states

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COMMENTS: 1
  1. May 01, 2018 by Anderson Page

    Hi,

    Great project! Your presentation is very clear and thorough. I had no idea there was such a difficulty with implementing solar. I just had one quick question. If we currently store energy we make with coal and oil, why can’t we use that same technique for solar?

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