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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Guest Writer: The Future of Solar Energy

Please welcome this week's Guest Writer, Chris, who will be sharing his knowledge about photovoltaic cells, or as they're commonly known as, solar panels. Chris is a close friend of mine and he was excited to have an opportunity to write on this subject. The result was an intriguing article about solar energy that I can hardly wait to share!

Chris is a student from Penfield, New York. He is actively engaged in music, and was accepted to the All-Eastern Honors choir. He is an accomplished swimmer, as a sectional champion and second place state finalist. In addition, he has been actively involved in many medical interniships at the University of Rochester, as he intends to pursue a career in medical research. Though his career interest is in medicine, he has been interested in green technology and alternative energy since a young age. In 5th grade, he created a hydrogen fuel cell dispaly, with a hydrogen fuel cell he constructed himself. He has done amateur experimentation in fuel cell technology, as well as with photovoltaic cells and carbon zinc batteries. He is a strong advocate for alternative energy, and believes the future of global energy will come from human ingenuity.

Without further ado, I give you Chris's article, "The Future of Solar Energy."


The Future of Solar Energy
Voyager 1 was launched on September 5th, 1977, to explore the outer reaches of our solar system.  Its goal was to visit Jupiter and Saturn, then using their gravity as a slingshot, shoot itself into deep space.  NASA even included a set of Gold plated records, containing diagrams of our solar system’s position in the galaxy, and pictures and sounds of our culture and environment should any intelligent life find the probe.  We knew it would be the first manmade object to leave our solar system. 

In August of 2012, Voyager’s sensors began to report drastic changes in the solar radiation surrounding it.  Through the next few months, the radiation levels continued to drop, until in March of 2013, solar radiation levels plummeted to one percent of previous amounts.  In addition, galactic radiation levels increased to nearly two times the previous amounts.  This was the proof that NASA was looking for that Voyager had departed the solar system, as these changes indicated that voyager had officially left the Heliosphere, which was believed to be the edge of our solar system. 

However, on March 20th, 2013, NASA’s Jet Propulsions Laboratory (JPL) declared that Voyager had not left the solar system.  This came a complete shock to the scientific community, as Voyager 1 had now reached a distance of 18.5 billion miles, so far that it takes light, what most of us think of infinitely fast, almost a full day to reach the probes.  Despite all of this, against all basic intuition, scientists have concluded that the probe is still within the sun’s grasp, greatly influenced by its release of energy.

Think of how far away this probe is.  It has been flying through space for over 35 years, reaching a distance of 18.5 billion kilometers, the furthest object man has sent into space, yet it is still within our sun’s influence.  The sun is unimaginably large and powerful.  The energy output from the sun (in the form of light) is equal to 3.846 × 1026 watts, or 3.846 × 1033 ergs/sec.  The largest power plant humans have ever built generates around 7 Giga Watts of power.  Now those numbers are hard to compare, so let me put it this way.  You would need 10 million of these power plants, per human being on earth, to just about equal the power of the sun.  Maybe that’s still not sinking in, so I’ll try again.  One single second of the sun’s energy output would power the United States (at current usage levels) for 9 million years. 

It’s difficult to comprehend this amount of energy, but the point I’m trying to make is: why are we letting this go to waste?  We are quite literally letting it fly right by us into the depths of space.  Solar energy can change the way our world does energy, and it’s only getting better.

A photovoltaic cell, more commonly called a “solar cell” or “solar panel”, is a device that converts the sun's energy into electrical energy.  This occurs through the use of semiconductor materials such as silicon (the most commonly used material), which, when struck by a photon, absorbs the energy and causes the release of a free moving electron- this free electron is what we know as electricity.

The first solar cell was produced in 1839- almost 200 years ago.  The design has gone under little innovation and advancement since then, and it wasn’t until the past few decades that the technology has been looked at as a serious alternative energy source. The first solar park (or a power plant composed entirely of solar cells) was constructed in 1982 in California.  The plant built there originally had an energy capacity of 5.6 Mega Watts, however modern plants are reaching upwards of 200 and 300 Mega Watts. 

Granted there has been much advancement in solar energy, there are still draw backs.  First, solar panels require a large surface area to generate enough energy to make a difference, which is why these solar parks are sometimes undesirable. They just take up too much space.  The other drawback is that a solar plant does not provide a steady stream of energy such as a coal or nuclear plant because the sun is not present in the sky 100% of the time.
Picture courtesy of: http://www.windenergyplanning.com/solar-energy-expansion-in-south-west-england/

That being said, solar energy can still be a valuable tool toward providing clean and sustainable energy. There are even some things that you as an individual can do to take part in the future of energy.

Replacing your roof with solar cells

At first this might seem like a bit of an extreme change to make to your life style, but let’s look at the benefits before you jump to any conclusions.

•    Reduced heat conduction into your house because black light absorbing shingles are replaced with electricity generating solar cells, reducing the need for air conditioning in the summer.
•    Generates up to 5.47 KWs of usable energy for the home.
•    A cut in utility costs per month of up to 2/3.
Solar power is definitely going to play a role in the future of the American (and global) energy infrastructure.  Unlike traditional coal or nuclear power plants, a large part of solar impact on the world could be decided by regular consumers like you.  If every home and business in the United States replaced their roofs, or even a portion of their property, with solar panels, the estimated energy production would cover 1/3 of the United State’s total energy usage. As solar technology continues to improve, become cheaper and more readily available, its applications are almost limitless.  The price of solar cells is now about half of what it was only 2 years ago, and it continues to drop.

The future of clean American energy doesn’t lie in a laboratory somewhere.  It isn’t some magical technology that we haven’t invented or discovered yet.  It isn’t some expensive machinery only billion dollar corporations can own and operate.  The future of clean, renewable energy will come from right above your heads, in the form of a simple, efficient, and cost effective alternative to standard roofing.
Picture courtesy of: http://www.123rf.com/photo_5137873_solar-panels-on-the-roof-of-a-house.html

Sources:
http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/solar-cell1.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic_power_station
http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/sunfact.html
http://www.forbes.com/sites/uciliawang/2012/06/18/dows-solar-shingles-found-their-first-home-in-california/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentrated_solar_power
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentrated_photovoltaics

Thank you for reading! If you have any questions for Chris regarding his article or renewable energy technology, you can contact him at Chrisrsjg@gmail.com
Please stay tuned for tomorrow for "Activism Spotlight" and "Suggested Reading."

10 comments:

  1. Is the author speaking from experience? How difficult is it to acquire solar roofing? How fast will it pay itself off?

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    Replies
    1. Solar Roofing, currently remains very expensive compared to standard roofing techniques used today. It can be fairly difficult depending on where you live, but if you live in very bright climates, it should be easier to obtain. More and more companies are springing up offering the technology. As far as how fast it will pay itself off, this again will vary widely depending on where you live. In areas like California, you can expect to pay off the debt within 10 years by some estimates. In other areas like upstate new york (where it remains cloudy much of the year), many people may never see the cost of the solar panels be paid off. HOWEVER. all of those cost estimates are based off of todays prices, within the next 10-20 years, we will see large reductions in the price of solar panels, which will make them much more widely available, and will make them more cost efficient for people where the sun shines less often.
      -Chris

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  2. I want to install solar roofing in my home, but my house doesn't have a southern exposure on the roof. Is there another way to do it and how? But this is an excellent article! Extremely informative, maybe Chris should go into a career of environmentalism!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words! However, currently, I plan on getting my degree in Neuroscience, then move onto Medical School. But i digress...

      To answer your question, if you don't have a southern exposure on your roof this will definitely effect the roofs efficiency. However you may consider adding solar panels in your yard, or other pieces of your property that go unused. This is for many undesirable for many though, and so if you are unwilling to do that, I would recommend waiting to adapt the technology. It is still relatively new, and so is very expensive, and hasn't reached peak efficiency yet. There are other ways you can help to go green though, as I'm sure you can find on this blog! Try giving solar a few more years, many estimates say that Solar and Wind energy will become more economical than fossil fuels within 20 years. Investing in the technology, allowing for further research and development will only help the cause! I hope that sufficed, though if you have any more questions, I'd be glad to help!
      -Chris

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  3. Thank you both for your interest in Chris's article! Chris will provide answers to your questions as soon as he is available. He's currently on a chorus-related trip.

    Sincerely,
    Faith

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  4. I have installed solar panels on my roof a year ago and when first installed I estimated it would take 5 years to recover the money spent but since then the cost of electricity has risen and will rise again,, Since installing I have not paid a cent on power bills as the surplus energy is sold back to the power company.. But a good and informative article... My panels face north :-)

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    1. Thank you for sharing about your panels, Brian :) Since the price of electricity went up, do you think your panels have already paid you back? Or will they soon?
      How does the process of selling electricity back to companies work?
      -Faith

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  5. In my first calculations it would take 5 years to repay the money spent but now since the increase it is roughly 4 1/2 years but more price rises are already being talked about..
    After working out my yearly use of power and the cost I put a solar system on my roof that would produce the equal amount of kilowatts for the year...I now have a 5 kilowatt system which is 23 panels on my roof...I do not have battery back up for storage so the panels during the day make more power then I use...The excess power is fed back into the grid and the power company buys it from me...I have a meter box that records what I use and what I sell..So during our winter (long warm sunny days) I make far more then I use and I get a credit from the power company...But during summer (long HOT days) I use more power as the air conditioners are in use...So my credit earned is used then....When I installed the system the goverment had a incentive going where they garantee'd the power company would buy my excess power for $0.44 cents a kilowat to encourage people to install solar...But the cost of electrity from the power company at the time was $0.22 cents a kilowat so in reality they pay me twice per kilowat then what I buy it for :-) only down side is it is only a 16 year contract after that the buying price reverts back to $0.08 cents...So after all that the short answer is I should recoup my outlay in roughly 4 years and after that my power is free :-) and there is a conveter on the house and a meter box that records power put into the grid....Brian

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    1. Very interesting! Thank you for explaining that Brian! I'm glad you decided to have solar panels installed on your house :)
      -Faith

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  6. Great content. I strongly believe content should be genuine...................... solar pv

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