Solar Energy With Respect to Its Environmental and Economic Benefits
Solar energy is one of the most promising energy alternatives currently available to those individuals, businesses, and communities that are aiming to gather their power from a more sustainable source. Compared to traditional oil and gas, the benefits of solar power seem endless, and literally are in terms of availability. While oil, natural gas, and coal reserves all over the world are continuously shrinking at an alarming rate, cleaner alternatives like solar power continue to gain support within the global community as well as here domestically in the United States.
Solar power is not new, yet it has been relatively slow to gain speed within American favor and its development has continued to reinforce positive benefits within the environment and domestic economy. In fact, it was first demonstrated in real practice in 1839 by scientist Edmond Becquerel (Johansson & Burnham 1993). Solar power depends on its ability to convert real solar energy into usable power. Despite its simple source of energy, the designs of contemporary methods for harnessing such power are incredibly complex. According to research, “Like most semiconductor devices, they include a positive layer (on the bottom) and a negative layer (on the top) that create an electrical field inside the cell,” (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). This separated space then traps solar energy and creates the capacity to harness the power of the sun in a usable form. Thus, “When a photon of light strikes a semiconductor, it releases electrons (see animation). The free electrons flow through the solar cell’s bottom layer to a connecting wire as direct current (DC) electricity,” (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). This provides cheap and relatively reliable power that can cover the requirements of both modern residential and business needs. One thing that has stopped many from getting into the solar energy craze is the initial upfront costs that are obviously more than traditional energy sources. In many cases, individual residences and public institutions have to work on a severely limited budget, thus harnessing them from turning to solar power as an alternative. Yet, “Corporations, however, are better endowed, more influential, more sure of their goals, more flexible, more effective, and better organized than any institution could be,” (Scheer 2005:19). In fact, large corporations have the best ability to prove more sustainable in their practices by turning to solar power.
There are several different approaches to harnessing solar power. One of the oldest and most efficient is that of implementing monocrystalline solar panels to capture the sun’s energy. Silicon crystals absorb solar power and then transmit energy to storage facilities. In monocrystalline panels, there is a single silicon crystal design. According to research, “Monocrystalline panels are made from a large, single silicon crystal and have a patchwork pattern,” (Sun Run Inc. 2009). They are delicate and somewhat more expensive than their polycrystalline counterparts, they are still the more efficient out of the other panel styles. Although the capture more energy, they do tend to be more expensive. Research states that “Monocrystalline Silicon has a single and continuous crystal lattice structure with practically zero defects or impurities,” (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). The single surface of the silicon single allows more energy to transfer into usable power. With very little fragmentation within the crystal design, the panel puts out maximum efficiency in terms of power wattage. Studies have shown that “Conversion efficiencies range from 12 to 18%, the theoretical limit being about 23%” when using monocrystalline panels (Starr & Palz 1983:16). Yet, there is a cheaper alternative. Polycrystalline panels feature a series of smaller fragmented silicone crystals together in one panel. According to research, polycrystalline “panels are made of lots of tiny silicon crystals and have a geometric pattern,” (Sun Run Inc. 2009). They are definitely the cheaper alternative, but can have some disadvantages when compared to their monocrystalline counterparts. The fragmentation can sometimes loose energy through the transmission process. Yet, they are still easily implemented in both commercial and residential settings (Johansson & Burnham 1993).
There have been various improvements over the years that have also increased solar power’s efficiency in real practice. One of those is the use of metallization, or the “evaporation of a metal that is heated to above its melting point into a vacuum,” (Johansson & Burnham 1993:344). This helps seal the cell walls and creates higher levels of performance, but at the disadvantage of increased costs. Chemicals have also been used to seal the crystals and also increase their efficiency. Research shows that “By sealing the cell surface with a layer of thermally grown oxide, a technique well-known from microelectronics, additional design flexibility became possible,” (Johansson & Burnham 1993:342). Chemical treatments can also prove costly, and also dangerous in terms of their environmental impact during initial production. Surface texturizing is also a recent improvement that has increased efficiency of solar power. Lasers cut textures into the cells to improve their efficiency; “The fine fingers that are essential for high efficiency are defined using a laser to form narrow grooves deep into the cell surface,” (Johansson & Burnham 1993:346). This has proved a very cost effective improvement based on its lacking of costly and dangerous chemical processes.
The implementation of solar power on a large scale would drastically change our impact on the natural environment as we know it today. Technology has a huge effect on our environment, and solar power is a prime example of how we can harness innovative technologies to provide a better and more sustainable world for future generations. Implementation of solar power is taking some of the most innovative ideas and placing them in practice to solve real world problems. Yet, even our most innovative technologies seem to rely somewhat on more traditional methods of producing power.
There are several disadvantages in terms of solar power and its impact on the environment, yet these pale in comparison to traditional power acquisition. First, traditional energy needed to create and install solar panels in businesses and residences around the United States. According to research, “Energy is required to manufacture and install solar components, and any fossil fuels used for this purpose will generate emissions,” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Part of this is catering to recent improvements which call for more dangerous chemicals in the pursuit of more efficient solar power technology. Emissions produced during manufacturing can then be seen as an environmental disadvantage. Additionally, some experiments in solar power have also actually contributed more to the growing emissions problems, rather than actually help as they are intended to. According to research, “for example, solar waters heaters increase the amount of hot water generated per unity of fossil energy invested by at least a factor of two compared to natural gas water heating and by at least a factor of eight compared to electric water heating,” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Moreover, solar plants on an industrial or commercial level need large plots of land to space out a plethora of panels. Thus, “the large amount of land required for utility-scale solar power plants — approximately one square kilometer for every 2 — 60 megawatts (MW) generated — poses an additional problem, especially where wildlife protection is a concern,” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). This becomes a problem when trying to find alternative sources of energy which are drastically different in terms of their environmental impact.
Yet, it is clear that innovative minds at the heart of the solar energy movement are creating new ways around such problems. Better manufacturing of panels under stricter regulations helps ensures the most environmentally sound practices during solar panel production. This includes both national and international legislation and policy reform which restricts particular production behaviors from the top down. Better manufacturing practices in general will also benefit from such restrictions, and manufacturing as a whole could drastically reduce its environmental impact both worldwide and domestically. Currently, manufacturing on all levels is bound to the use of fossil fuels (Scheer 2005). Solar energy, although initially consuming some fossil fuels in earl development, will help manufacturing break free from its chains to oil and gas. This would help spread more sustainable production methods that would also decrease overall annual production costs in terms of power costs. Greater restrictions can also be help with the more efficient information dissemination. With more knowledge regarding the benefits of solar power, both environmentally and economically, more will turn to it as an alternative source for much needed power in both commercial and residential applications. To combat issues that would threaten large plots of land, architects and designers of many solar power facilities have turned towards favoring building small, rather than the build-it-big mentality of traditional energy resources. Many developers have turned towards small scale applications of solar power plants as a way to curb on needed land. Large scale applications tend to have limited results. This shows that “Because sunlight is dispersed, small-scale, disperse applications are a better match to the resource,” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Thus, smaller scale applications of solar power facilities can also help minimize the environment impact of solar power in general.
The primary benefit of the implementation of solar power remains the lowering of our carbon footprint in our pursuit for a pleasurable and feasible life within the modern world. According to research, “solar power panels generate zero CO2 emissions,” (Simple Earth Media 2009). Thus, more focus on the implementation of solar power would drastically reduce the harmful gases being emitted into the atmosphere by traditional power sources. With no carbon dioxide or other harmful greenhouse gases, the application of solar power has great potential to help curb the environmental damage that has already wreaked havoc on the natural ecology of the globe. Thus, research is correct to assert that “A major benefit of substituting biomass for fossil fuels is that, if done in a sustainable fashion it would greatly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). This would also help extend the benefits of using power into future generations. Not only would it help curb carbon emissions as they stand today, such usage would set new precedents in terms of environmental consciousness while helping reduce greenhouse gas levels for future generations. Implementing solar energy resources is a plan of the future, while relying on oil and natural gas is becoming evidently clear an obsolete solution of the past.
In addition to its environmental benefits, the implementation of more solar power developments would also include several economic benefits. In an already unstable and vulnerable economy, many are scared to turn towards new technologies that have been basically ignored up until recent years. In addition, many more are very skeptical of increasing the solar power industry based on the negative effect it would have on already dying oil and natural gas industry. Large scale solar power efforts would prove to have a detrimental effect on current oil-based energy employment. Yet, this is a displacement of jobs, and not a complete destruction of them. Thus, turning towards an increased solar energy industry is “not picture-postcard nostalgia, but modern, forward-looking enterprise; not a declining industry, but a major source of new employment,” (Scheer 2005:316). It will no doubt have a positive affect on economy in that it will create an entirely new job force. Future years with more weight and effort spent in solar power will lead to the creation of an entirely new major industry that would offer thousands of Americans steady employment in hard economic times.
Jobs will be needed to manufacture, install, and manage solar powered plants and residential set ups. Research states that “What is for certain, though, besides the creation of new industries on both small and large scales, is that there would be considerably more employment,” (Scheer 2005:289). Thus, huge economical benefits in terms of opening up new streams of employment would follow with large scale implementations of solar power.
Additionally, solar power will have a powerful effect on the individual in other ways. One major element of public works facilitating solar power is their off the grid system approach which encourages individual investment on behalf of residents within the area. This has been successful based not on large public works projects that create massive solar power plants to feed power to entire cities, but more from the encouragement of individual residents aiming to build their own solar power plants in their back yards or on their rooftops. Such encouragement has come in the way of monetary rewards to spur individuals to seek out solar power autonomously. Tax breaks and credits for businesses and every day Americans has helped spread this strategy and saved larger public works millions of dollars. Additionally, major cities like Los Angeles feature programs where credits given back to residences and business that give excess solar power back to the grid. This rewards individuals, encourages others, and saves everyone money. Thus, more money is saved — which is a benefit to the economy as a whole.
Moreover. Solar power will prove crucial in our lessening our dependence on petroleum products. According to research, “the world is fettered by the supply chains of a finite, exhaustible resource base, chains which are dragging humanity inexorably into the abyss,” (Scheer 2005:37). Solar power would then lessen our dependence on foreign oil and gas, at the same time liberated millions of dollars in energy costs which are being spent overseas, rather than at home in a domestic context. It keeps energy spending domestic and on a small scale, therefore benefiting the individual communities and citizens much more than traditional energy sources. Research states that “The universal availability of renewable resources within the local environment opens up an opportunity which has been increasingly ignored since the Industrial Revolution [â€¦] that of harnessing the source and generating the energy on the same site — or at least in the same region — where it will be used,” (Scheer 2005:67). This then opens up vast opportunities for local communities to benefit from a new emerging industry. Such actions then help increase the national GDP as a whole, because Americans hold their own power assets.
Yet, solar power still proves a heavy investment. Solar panel investment can be incredibly expensive in terms of up-front costs. Simple set ups can end up costing individual citizens thousands of dollars upfront. This has proved one of the major deterrents of individual homeowners and local businesses from making the move towards implementing more sustainable solar practices for acquiring power. Yet, it is absurd “to evaluate the economic potential of energy sources solely on the basis of the capital cost of power generation plant required,” (Scheer 2005:76). Much recent research and popular media has shown the enormous saved costs on larger scales after initial investments are implemented (Scheer 2005). These include benefits for residential, business, corporate, municipal, and federal agencies and individuals.
Solar power also offers the potential to put profits back into the hands of individual and corporate investors who place capital in protecting the environment and spurring an entirely new industry. There is the potential for profit from giving back to the grid on a small residential scale. Individuals who take the great pains to invest in solar power on their own dime, and not that of their municipal organization soon realize that there is actually a potential to make profit in their investment. Not only do they save hundreds of dollars, if not thousands of dollars, annually from decimated power costs, they make profits reselling power back into local municipalities. Local residents, who produce more power than they consume through the use of solar power equipment and systems, then actually see a return not only in saved costs but also real profit dollars. This proves a powerful innovator for local governments and municipalities to direct a strategy for encouraging localized movements towards solar power.
With the benefits of solar power also comes an increase of productivity in energy resources, which serves to increase potential profitability of commercialized industries and businesses which aim to spend the big bucks converting to solar power. According to research, “There are greater opportunities for productive energy use where power can be generated at reduced technical cost,” (Scheer 2005:81). With less cost spent on actual acquisition of power resources from far distant production hubs over seas, every dollar spent in the solar power industry proves to increase the overall productivity of businesses around the country. Increased productivity also helps local companies and communities maximize profitability.
Solar power is the way of the future. As local and foreign governments move towards more sustainable practices in providing their citizens with usable power. This means increased potential for industries that rely on heavy power, including modern domestic production and potentially even deeper engrained industries such as agriculture. While still having benefits on a large scale, the true power of solar energy rests in its distributed small scale implementations. Not only will individual investments pay off in terms of decimated power costs and even reimbursement from local governments for selling off excess power, implementing solar power on small scales proves the most effective and cost worthy within the national agenda. With the added potential to create vast new sources of employment within a brand new industry, solar power proves one of the most lucrative and sustainable alternatives to the more traditional petroleum industry.
EcoGeneration Solutions. (1999).Monocrystalline silicon. Solar Energy Systems. Retrieved May 17, 2010 from http://www.cogeneration.net/monocrystalline_silicon.htm
Johansson, Thomas B. & Burnham, Laurie. (1993). Renewable Energy: Sources for Fuels and Electricity. Island Press.
Scheer, Hermann. (2005). The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future. Earthscan.
Simple Earth Media. (2009). What are the benefits of solar power? Green Living Ideas. Retrieved January 13, 2010 from http://greenlivingideas.com/topics/alternative-energy/solar-energy-photovoltaics/what-are-the-benefits-of-solar-power
Starr, Michael R. & Palz, Willeke. (1983). Photovoltaic Power for Europe: An Assessment Study. 1st ed. Springer Publishing.
Sun Run Inc. (2009). Types of photovoltaic solar panels. Learn About Solar. Retrieved May 17, 2010 from http://www.sunrunhome.com/learn_about_solar/solar_panels/
Union of Concerned Scientists. (2010). Environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies. Energy Technology Impacts. Retrieved May 18, 2010 from http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/technology_and_impacts/impacts/environmental-impacts-of.html
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