The Myths, Facts, and Future of Solar Energy, Term Paper Example
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In today’s world, concerns regarding energy sources are rising at levels seemingly proportionate to diminishing supplies. Oil prices create fluctuating rates for gasoline that reach unprecedented highs, just as U.S. dependency on foreign oil supplies is invariably an issue in presidential campaigning. Proposals to create pipelines in the U.S. itself offer something in the way of a solution, but generate further concerns regarding environmental impacts, just as a reliance of oil and coal from any source presents the inescapable reality of eventual depletion. Added to this is the increasing sense that, even as perceptions of degree vary, the burning of fossil fuels is promoting global warming and facilitating unnatural – and frequently violent – developments in global weather patterns. The means of producing energy is seen essential, and is inevitably more so is a world increasingly industrialized, yet the traditional modes of obtaining that energy create immense challenges.
By way of response, there has for some time been a movement toward employing natural energy sources that do not pollute and are essentially inexhaustible. Harnessing wind power is one of these, but the greater emphasis is on developing processes by which the most potent source of energy known to humanity may be employed: the sun. As will be explored, progress here has been marked by a number of obstacles, ranging from insufficient efforts to a variety of misconceptions as to the actual efficacy of this power. Nonetheless, the efforts continue, and for good reason. With a consistent ambition going to ways of obtaining and utilizing solar energy, the world is better poised to finally eliminate the threat of source depletion, end harmful impacts on natural environments, and attain an energy source that is essentially limitless.
Basics of Energy and Solar Energy
Energy is distinguished, of course, from that which it is used for, a distinction often ignored in the greater focus on the usage of it. More exactly, energy as such exists in a wide variety of forms. Most people think in terms of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, accumulated from past geological ages and created by processes of natural decay; organic matter decomposes over extensive periods of time and are converted to fuel sources. Fossil fuels, however, are actually a type of potential energy; as water held by a dam is energy being stored for usage, so too are the molecules in gasoline potentials for energy (Foster, Ghassemi, & Cota 4). As is widely known today, however, fossil fuels are by no means ideal energy sources. They are intrinsically finite, as the supply is not renewable, just as the environmental impacts of them go beyond pollution of the atmosphere through their burning. Recovering fossil fuels is necessarily a matter of literally unearthing them. Consequently, as the burning creates polluting emissions, so too do the processes of obtaining them lead to deforestation and other, severe impacts to the natural environment.
Given the noted issues arising from fossil fuel as stored energy, and particularly in a world wherein energy needs are expected to double by the middle of the 21st century (Foster, Ghassemi, & Cota 3), it is hardly surprising that interest has steadily been given to alternate – and renewable – energy sources. To that end, kinetic energy and biomass are increasingly explored. The former is most utilized in wind power; as uneven heating of the earth’s surface generates wind, the particles in movement create energy that may be contained and directed. With biomass, renewal of resources occurs through the consistent usage of organic substances to generate energy through chemical, thermal, or biochemical conversions. Plants chiefly compose biomass materials, as the process of employing them dates back to the first fire made by burning wood. Moreover, biomass is far more relied upon today than kinetic, or wind, energy, as it is foreseen as being a significant energy resource in a world departing from reliance on fossil fuels. Simply, there is no larger or more sustainable energy source in material form on the planet (Calle 4). What links all renewable energy sources, however, is that the sources are infinite and that the conversion processes are environmentally friendly (Foster, Ghassemi, & Cota 3). Renewable energy of all types, then, is energy that is inexhaustible and non-toxic.
Other means and substances notwithstanding, no potential source better meets these criteria than that of solar energy, a reality evident when the actual processes involved are known. The energy of the sun itself, removed from the planet’s atmosphere, translates to approximately 1,300 watts per square meter. Once within the atmosphere, the energy level is reduced to about 1,000 watts per square meter (UCS), and the energy potentials here alone are enormous, as derived from the applicable physics. The light of the watts is composed of photons, or light energy, and the color of the light dictates the amount of available energy; blue photons, for example, contain more energy than do red. To harness or extract this energy, photovoltaic cells, composed of semiconductors, are necessary. Semiconductors are silicone-based and, when the photon of the sun strikes the photovoltaic cell, the electrons of the cell are dislodged. Electrons also absorb energy from the photons (depending upon the color and the energy potential of the photon itself), so a chain reaction is enabled (Chen 162). Essentially, the light energy of the sun works in concert with the photovoltaic cells to free electrons and produce electricity.
This basic process of the physics in the transfer of energy from light into electricity does not, of course, convey the magnitude of the sun’s potentials as a supplier. They are, in every sense of the word, extraordinary; 20 days of sunlight is the equivalent in energy of all the oil, coal, and natural gas reserves believed to be available (UCS). There are advantages to be gained from explorations of kinetic energy sources, certainly, as it is not likely that biomass, so prevalent and sustainable a resource, will not be further expanded as an energy source. What is truly striking in any examination of renewable energy, however, is that, in a very real sense, all energy sources known to man are to some degree solar-based. It is the heat of the sun that causes the fossil decay and degeneration of organic matter into fuel sources. It is the heat of the sun that creates wind for energy, through the provision of alternating temperatures and the corresponding molecular activity that is wind. It is then all the more remarkable, as will be addressed shortly, that humanity is so long in coming to the realization in its best interests; namely, that as the sun is essentially the primary source of all energy, efforts to directly obtain solar energy are the most expedient ways to achieve the greatest amount of energy to be had.
Processes of Utilizing Solar Energy
One means of employing solar energy is by no means new, that of passive collection. In a sense, in fact, “collection” is the chief factor in regard to solar energy; it does not require manufacture or processing, but rather storage allowing for access. This is evident in how structures of the past, and increasingly in evidence today, are designed in ways best promoting the maximum attainment of light and heat. This passive usage is also of immense significance, in terms of all energy outlay; commercial and residential properties in the U.S. alone, for example, account for more than a third of U.S. energy consumption (UCS). Simple design strategies may greatly ease this; the house that is oriented toward the south, with more windows letting in more light, is an instance of passive utilization. Skylights, awnings, and shade trees also allow for optimizing light and regulating heating and cooling as desired, with less recourse to fuel-based controls. The same principles, of course, apply to commercial buildings. Designing and constructing buildings of all kinds to most effectively access sun is, in essence, a cost-free means of taking advantage of solar power, just as such designs are typically more appealing in aesthetic terms. Passive design invariably echoes natural landscapes, and there are no mechanical devices in place to disrupt the impression or local environment. It is also an investment, certainly in terms of residential usage; if the initial cost is high, the lack of ongoing fuel bills more than compensates for it in a matter of years.
The passive approach to solar energy may also incorporate elements of the more active, as in solar collector panels. Solar collectors, as boxes or panels, are placed on the rooftops of buildings to collect energy for space heating and cooling, and for water heating. Sizes vary, but most such panels and boxes are large and relatively flat, painted black on the inside and coated with glass. Systems of pipes or tubes within the panels hold liquid, usually a water-alcohol mixture to prevent freezing, which then transfers heat from the panel into the building. Systems also enable solar energy to cool, as desiccant evaporators use the heat collected by panels to extract moisture out of the air. Moist air, warmer than dry, is vented externally. Similarly, an absorption chiller employs solar heat to warm a refrigerant under pressure; when the pressure is released, the refrigerant expands and the air is cooled (UCS). As may be obvious, degrees of heating and cooling as created by the solar energy are dictated by the size of the solar collecting devices. Nonetheless, given the noted amounts of energy relayed by sunlight, relatively small panels may serve large structures.
The means of collecting and utilizing solar energy described above are, if not passive, far less efficient than methods used commercially. Solar thermal concentrating systems, as the name implies, take advantage of the exponential properties of light and heat to generate significantly high amounts of energy. Parabolic troughs, parabolic dishes, and central receivers are typical solar thermal concentrators. The most frequently used is the parabolic trough, which is a long and curved mirror that gathers, and then concentrates, sunlight on a liquid within the trough. When the liquid reaches temperatures at about 300 degrees Celsius, it runs to a central collector that then generates steam turbines. The parabolic dish is different from the trough in that it focuses the sunlight on a specific point, thus allowing for higher temperatures and consequently larger amounts of energy. Lastly, the central receiver operates on a kind of relay system: extensive ranges of mirrors reflect sunlight to a central tower, the heat boils water and creates intense steam, and the steam drives a generator at the tower’s base (UCS).
What is critical to note in these designs of higher order solar collection is that actual storage of energy is enabled, and a baseload supply may be created to serve energy needs for extended periods of no direct sunlight. Beyond this inestimable advantage, there is as well the noted aspect of no mechanical processing required beyond that of the transfers of light and energy. Certainly, the panels, troughs, and dishes must be constructed and erected, but there is no other apparatus or substance needed. Refrigerants, as mentioned, are helpful in using solar power to cool, but these are not actual fuel sources demanding continual replenishment. In all the forms solar energy gathering occurs, the energy is created simply because of the devices in place enabling the transformation of light into heat.
Myths and Real Issues
If anything is attached to the idea of solar energy as both negative and largely unfounded in fact, it is the common perception that solar energy can not begin to provide the quantity of energy expected or required. There are many who will agree that solar power may be helpful in minimal ways, as in warming homes and lessening reliance on other fuels. In terms of large-scale industry, however, it cannot begin to provide the quantities of power needed. Consequently, solar energy, even as it continues to be explored as the most viable energy source to be exploited, remains under a “shadow” of disfavor. It is, to many minds, simply too mild and ineffectual an avenue to pursue, particularly given the energy consumption needs as foreseeable globally.
Some of this argument is at least partially based in fact. As will be seen, however, specific points raised against solar energy contain within them rebuttals, and further validation for it. For example, there is no denying that the majority of the sun’s energy does not reach the planet; with most deflected from the surface, the average BTU/SF (British Thermal Unit/Square Foot) on a summer’s day reaches only 2000, translating temperature not exceeding 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hardly sufficient in terms of the actual creation of energy to be employed on industrial levels (Pohl 68), let alone any force adequate in driving a turbine. At the same time, however, such calculations ignore the factors of focused gathering, as in parabolic troughs and dishes. Light, again, is exponentially enhanced when it is reflected and magnified, so the resultant energy output of the sun relies only on how focused the gathering is. Put another way, there is little room to argue that sunlight falling as such is a boundless source of energy, but concentrated collecting vastly alters the process.
It is also argued that collecting solar energy is too dependent upon the vagaries of the atmosphere, as well as to the irrefutable limitations of daylight in terms of hours (Pohl 68). There is truth to this, certainly. However, as has been discussed, collection today incorporates elements of storage; more specifically, the larger the solar collection in place, the greater the ability to actually save the energy (UCS). Then, it is difficult to avoid turning to a fact of immeasurable significance, when issues of actual source availability; namely, and despite cloud cover and extended periods of obfuscation, the core resource remains in place and undiminished. If there are problems in the timing of when the sun’s power may be harnessed, they in no way reflect an instability or unreliability of the primary source itself. These are, then, if not minor considerations, ones demanding of greater effort. As humanity exerts increasingly unprecedented efforts to secure fuel sources known to be limited in nature, it seems all the more imperative to devote attention to that source which cannot be exhausted, even if access is occasionally hampered.
Lastly – and usually seized upon by the most ardent opponents of solar energy – there is the matter of cost. Here again, certain facts do not lend themselves to dispute. Installing solar collection devices of any kind, from home panels to acres of parabolic mirrors, is expensive. The typical solar power apparatus, including collection, storage, and transmission components, costs approximately twice as much as a comparable fossil-fuel system (Pohl 68). To emphasize this negative aspect, however, is to dismiss a multitude of realities very much diffusing its impact. To begin with, asserting that solar energy is an expensive proposition does not address the high costs of other energy processes. The Energy Information Administration foresaw, for example, that the costs of coal and fossil fuel power plants would rise by 25-37 percent from 2010 to 2011 (Flourney 94). Energy based on non-solar applications is, in a word, always costly. Then, there is the highly significant factor of maintenance costs which, in regard to solar facilities, are so minimal as to be negligible. If the apparatus is costly, it costs very little once it is in place. Lastly, and importantly, there can be no accurate reckoning of the costs of solar power simply because, to date, not enough has been utilized to reveal the potential value.
An extreme example of this lack of application as indicating potential lies in solar power stations in satellite form. It is widely held today that, had the U.S. devoted as much effort to the creation of solar power satellites as it has to communication satellites, energy concerns today would be minimal (Flourney 91). In solar satellite technology, photons are collected by the devices and transmitted to the planet in the form of electromagnetic waves. This is the process by which, today, modern communication is enabled globally. While the energy of the solar waves must be managed carefully, there is every reason to assume that the precise abilities of the existing technology could render the energy more safely than occurs from nuclear facilities (Flourney 95). It is, moreover, literally impossible to project just how such energy transmissions would address energy concerns globally. The likelihood, not unexpectedly, is that dependence on fossil fuels would be virtually eliminated, given the range of a satellite’s ability to more directly collect photonic energy and relay it to any destination.
The myth of solar energy as being too costly, as well as inadequate to address growing energy needs, is not one likely to quickly disappear. There are, as noted, actual reasons behind the objections to solar power. However, a survey of the entire situation reveals an element often overlooked by opponents of solar power; namely, that there is no energy source known that does not involve risk or cost. Moreover, most others share a disadvantage removed from solar power, in that there is invariably a matter of accessing a sufficient amount of source fuel. Solar power is expensive, but more important is the fact that its true value cannot be ascertained until it is more widely employed. What studies there are, in fact, as seen below, indicate that energy gains exceed expectation. That same increase of utilization must also address concerns regarding its efficacy, as neither can be properly known until there is a greater commitment to the development of this clean and inexhaustible resource.
Benefits of Solar Energy/Alternate Options
In a very real sense, and inescapably so, a significant number of benefits of using solar energy are defined by what solar power is not, or does not create or demand. As noted, usage of fossil fuels is inherently disruptive to the environment. It relentlessly releases toxic emissions into the atmosphere, adversely affecting the composition of the air. This occurs in virtually every instance of fossil fuel usage, from the automobile’s emissions to the factories generating massive amounts of CO2.. Also, such effects do not reflect the often severe environmental repercussions arising from obtaining the fuels. It is noted that the costs of drilling for oil are increasing, raises in part generated by needs to drill in remote locations (Chen 341). Such extreme efforts then create additional risks, and few events so galvanized public consciousness as the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon project. Millions of gallons of oil were pumped into the Gulf over a three-month period, vastly affecting the shores, wetlands, marine life, and entire ecosystem of the Gulf. To date, BP is paying over $4.5 billion in penalties as well (Krauss), a figure which, aside from the environmental damage, must prompt renewed thinking as to the “costliness” of solar power.
Then, there is the added issue of widespread climate change, incalculable even as it is increasingly examined. Within a relatively short span of time, human activity has vastly added to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels have inestimably promoted societal development worldwide, but at a cost of immense damage to the planet’s natural systems (Llop 23). Whole populations have difficulty in breathing, just as increasing numbers of climate experts note changes in weather patterns clearly indicating the presence of agents beyond the natural vagaries of climate. It is well understood that life on earth relies upon a thin and fragile atmosphere, and industrial activity has, in no uncertain terms, severely threatened the natural balances within it. Solar power in no way reflects such consequences. As with the kinetic energy it enables, there is no more clean method of creating energy, as there is no waste product to discharge, environment to alter from a natural state, or base materials of a finite supply.
Many seriously concerned with ecological issues of traditional fuels point to the alternative of nuclear power. With such energy, it is argued, environmental damage is not a factor, nor is the atmosphere in any way negatively affected. Furthermore, large scale baseloads of electricity are made available by a technology that has matured and evolved, and there is sufficient uranium to render nuclear energy as virtually a renewable resource (Dawson, Spannagle 294). Overwhelming evidence also supports the ability of nuclear power to provide energy consistently for large populations. At the same time, however, very real concerns are attached to this resource. Uranium, while still in plentiful supply, remains a finite substance. In regard to cost, generating nuclear power, which requires high-level maintenance as well as a significant initial investment, is not appreciably less expensive than generating solar power at similar levels. Perhaps most importantly, that nuclear power does not harm the environment as does fossil fuel production does not negate the critical element of waste. The radioactive wastes created by the processes require safe storage for thousands of years, and this must inevitably translate to risk factors. In fact, and despite a preponderance of evidence supporting nuclear power as safe, isolated incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl continue to influence public perceptions not favoring the energy. This is further exacerbated by the fact that nuclear fuel residues may be employed in the creation of weapons of mass destruction, a concern of great import given relatively recent terrorist activities. Solar energy presents no such obstacles or issues, save for the acknowledged one of high cost.
An additional appeal of solar power usage lies in cultural considerations. More exactly, as concerns regarding clean and sustainable energy rise in industrialized nations, larger numbers of people are seeking to identify themselves with the encouragement of it. Studies reveal that people are inclined to support that which expresses their environmental beliefs (Faiers, Neame 1798). This is, moreover, by no means as superficial an advantage as it may seem. Cultures and nations tend to evolve in certain ways, as movements going to the betterment of the society frequently arise from beginnings initially marginal. As concerns over the environment increase, it is then seen as desirable in people to reflect an awareness of them, and to be identified as committed to improving the circumstances. Consequently, that supporting solar power enhances individual status reflects individual recognition of the importance of it, as well as ambitions to make supportive efforts. If, in other words, the individual’s sense of status improves, so too does the society by virtue of the motivation as promoting the better energy source. It may then be said that, in this shifting public perception, societies are in essence creating the new “reality” wherein solar power is not viewed as a renegade or radical, and largely inadequate, energy solution, but as an eminently sensible direction to take.
It is extraordinary to consider that, as humanity has consistently used the power of the sun to obtain fuel throughout its history, the advent of the technology which greatly facilitates the direct gain of solar power is resisted. Part of this is likely due to humanity’s tendency to rely upon forces and systems long-established and trusted, just as the relative low cost of fossil fuels in the past surely encouraged the dependence upon them. The world, however, changes, and changes comes in large measure by means of human activity. Nowhere is this more profoundly evident than in fuel consumption and its effects. Hundreds of years of mass consumption have depleted stores of fossil fuels, raised costs and prices, and compelled whole nations to resort to increasingly remote and difficult access. The results are well-documented, in terms of damage to the environment and the climate, just as the seemingly “clean” resource of nuclear power brings with it challenges and risks all its own. Moreover, solar power is as yet no ideal solution to mankind’s energy needs. It is an evolving science, and as such is expensive and somewhat alien to the populations at large. It boasts, nonetheless, assets and potentials too remarkable to be overlooked. With solar energy, there is no damage whatsoever to natural systems; initial costs are reduced in terms of minimal maintenance of supply; and, most importantly of all, the source of the energy is as sustainable, clean, dependable, and renewable as any that may be imagined: the life-giving sun itself. With consistent efforts of obtaining and utilizing solar energy made, the world is better poised to finally eliminate the real threat of source depletion, end harmful impacts on natural environments, and attain an energy source that is essentially limitless.
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