Going Solar

Chris Royce – BCT

Jordan Young – NRC


Solar Panels in Riverside: A Case Studty (The Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside, ND)

Solar Panels in Riverside: A Case Studty (The Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside, ND)

In April of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded off the Louisiana coast. Eleven workers were killed, and it caused the biggest accidental oil spill in history. More than 200 million gallons of crude oil cascaded from the rig before it was capped three months later. As Elaine Quijano, CBS News correspondent discovered, many adverse effects came from this disaster. Thousands of fish that were farmed for food were found to have huge lesions and fin rot. “You can’t spill that much oil into the system without having long term negative consequences,” stated David Muth, who is with the advocacy group National Wildlife Federation (Quijano, 2012). The spill resulted in the deaths of many ocean life forms, including dolphins and coral reefs. Quijano also visited an island in the Gulf of Mexico that was four acres in size before the oil spill. After, it was less than one acre in size. There are other areas nearby where “the ground is so saturated you can actually see the oil bubbling up from the ground” (Quijano, 2012). The environmental cleanup for this oil spill alone has cost BP more than $14 billion.

This is not the first time a massive oil spill has occurred. It’s also not the first time oil or other natural gases have been responsible for adversely affecting the environment. Global warming has become one of the world’s hottest topics, and resolving it has become one of the most important issues. Oil and natural gases combustion is one of the top causes of global warming. In 2010 alone, the United States produced more than 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in just fuel (oil and natural gas) combustion (IEA, 2012, p. 69). That’s 10 times the amount produced by Canada in the same year. The increase in CO2 emissions has resulted in rising temperatures and sea levels and in more violent and frequent storms. However, global warming (and the subsequent change in weather patterns) is just one of the many impacts that gas and oil use has on the world. The cost of oil and natural gases in terms of money is quite high, but it’s the hidden costs that hold the bigger impact. Just looking back at the BP oil spill, more than $14 billion dollars have been spent in cleanup efforts. On the other end of the “cost spectrum,” 11 people lost their lives in this accident. Eleven people who cannot be replaced. We can also look at the fact that about 8 times as many dolphins were beached after the spill than before it (Quijano, 2012). Thousands of ocean animals also lost their lives. The people who depend on this ecosystem for a living (fishers, etc.) also lost out because of the spill. This rig was farming oil so we can drive our cars. An ecosystem was all but ruined for the sake of our transportation. We need to reduce our dependence on oil and natural gases, for the sake of the environment and ourselves.

But what can we do about these carbon emissions? What can we do to try and protect some of these ecosystems from utter destruction? We depend upon a certain level of energy in order to perform everyday tasks, and there is no easy way to suddenly stop using oil and natural gas as sources of energy. So, what can we do? We need to find alternative sources of energy so that we can start to rely on oil and gas less as time goes on. The answer is to literally look to the stars, namely our own: the sun. The sun is an almost limitless source of energy. The only real limit is our willingness to use it. We have the technology to capture, convert and utilize the energy from the sun. Our lack of willingness to use it hinges on the cost and space to use it. The responses for both are rather simple. The cost of solar power is lowering over the course of time, not to mention that over the course of the solar power system’s life, we would save enough money to pay for the system and then some. The space is also simple: look to the marginal lands of the southwest United States. Marginal lands, in the case of the southwest United States, are deserts or areas close to deserts. In this region alone, there are more than 121,000 square kilometers that are prime for the use of solar-harvesting technology (Milbrandt et al., 2014, p. 478). These lands are almost uninhabitable for human beings, but using them for infrastructure like solar farms is an ideal use. We believe that there is a distinct lack of clean energy, due to a lack of clean energy sources. We need to use more clean energy for the sake of the environment and the economy, and using marginal lands in the southwest United States is the perfect place to do it.

One way to understand why solar panels are a more environmentally friendly choice than coal or oil is to look at the embodied energy. Embodied energy is the sum of all the energy required to get a desired product. In the case of a copper wire, the embodied energy would be all of the energy needed to excavate the copper, melt it, and shape it into a wire. That’s three components for a simple copper wire. Imagine all of the energy required to get oil. The embodied energy needed for an oil rig is immense, especially when one considers the miles of steel columns and tubes that the underwater superstructure is comprised of. The first thing to look at when investigating the embodied energy of a solar farm is the life cycle of a photovoltaic solar panel. When completing a life-cycle analysis, five things must be taken into account: procurement of raw materials, processing and purification of the raw materials, the manufacturing of modules and balance of system components, installation and use of the systems, and the decommissioning and recycling of used materials (Fthenakis and Kim, 2010, p. 1611). Using this life cycle analysis, one can make an informed decision on the benefits of switching to solar power. The amount of energy to obtain electricity from the sun is far less than it takes to obtain oil. And we haven’t even burned the oil to make electricity yet.

Photovoltaics: Life-cycle analyses. (Picture: Fthenakis, Kim, 2010, p. 1611)

In the commercial solar industry, there are different types of materials used to manufacture photovoltaic solar panels. The most common types are multi-crystalline silicon, mono-crystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, and cadmium telluride (CdTe). Fthenakis and Kim (2010) show, “When sunlight hits these materials, photons with a certain wavelength trigger electrons to flow through the materials to produce direct current (DC) electricity” (p.1609). The DC electricity produced by the solar panels is then converted into usable alternating current (AC) that can be used in the power grid. These materials all have to come from somewhere and it takes a certain amount of energy to extract and manufacture these materials into usable products. These products can be used to manufacture solar panels that will be used on solar farms. One of the important factors used in the life cycle analysis is energy payback time – the time it takes a product to generate the equivalent amount of energy to it required to produce the product. A statement by Fthenakis and Kim (2010) show:

The US manufacturer of CdTe [photovoltaics] predicts: (1) a linear increase in electrical- conversion efficiency from the current 9% to 12% by 2010; (2) a reduction of electricity requirements by about 25% within a couple of years through optimization of the deposition processes in CdTe lines; (3) about 20% of the manufacturing requirement will be satisfied via on-site solar electric generation. For a plant manufacturing 25 MWp/year [megawatt-peak] of 12% efficient PV modules, the latest scenario will require a 1.3 MWp PV installation on 2.7 acres, which is area available on the roof and parking of the facility. Then, the EPBT would fall to 0.4 years and the GHG emissions to 10 g CO2-eq./kWh for the life cycle of installed CdTe PV under the average US insolation [solar radiation], 1800 kWh/m2/year. (p.1626)

As prices of oil extraction and refining continue to rise, the solar industry will reach a point where it will become a more efficient source of energy, making it more attainable.

Other things to consider when looking at solar power are the economic benefits. These farms may have a moderately high initial cost, but this will be made back over the life of the solar farm. The average energy payback time for a photovoltaic solar panel is between 1 and 3 years (Fthenakis and Kim, 2010, p.1626). While the technology increases in popularity and availability, the prices will continue to fall. In the document by Reichelstein and Yorston (2013) they refer to a paper by Swanson where the author states “the market prices for solar panels have on average declined by approximately 20% every time the cumulative volume of solar PV power installations has doubled” (p.118). There is also the question of whether or not solar energy has become a competitive source of energy that can compare to the price of electricity from fossil fuels. The answer to this question depends on the location, size and efficiency of the system. A typical 1 MW solar farm costs in the $4-5 million range. In the past solar farms were only able to compete with conventional electricity sources with feed-in tariffs, loan guarantees and tax credits. Presently, solar power has reached the point where it’s become a viable competitor in the energy market. Utility scale solar farms have become cheaper in recent years with the rise in price of electricity derived from burning conventional fossil fuels. Newer and more efficient technologies have also helped to make solar power more prominent. The solar industry will eventually reach a crossover point when the price of solar farms will match and subsequently drop below the cost of traditional (coal and gas) electricity generation.

LCOE projections through 2020 for crystalline silicon at both utility and commercial scale, using ‘sustainable’ module prices as a starting point and an 80% learning curve factor for module prices (Picture: S. Reichelstein, M. Yorston, 2013 p.125)

The Topaz solar farm in San Luis Obispo County, California is a thin film PV electricity generation park that is located on a 9.5 sq. mile parcel. The farm currently has 1 million high-efficiency PV panels, and they plan to install up to 9 million of these panels. This is one of the largest solar farms in the world and produced 401.308 GWh of electricity in 2013 (“US Energy Information Administration,” n.d.). When construction is complete estimates are up to 1,000 GWh of power annually. With all the marginal lands that are available in the SW the potential for large scale solar farms is endless.

Marginal lands provide the best areas for sources of clean energy. They are not in use and are relatively easy to develop. They also make up approximately 11 percent of the contiguous United States (about 865,000 square kilometers). As a whole, marginal lands are defined as being areas that possess inherent disadvantages or lands that have been marginalized (treated as unimportant or peripheral) by natural or man-made forces. This does not mean that the land is useless, however. A study by Milbrandt, Hemiller, Perry, & Field (2014) shows that a “significant potential for renewable energy development” exists in these areas (p. 478). If every acre of marginal land was used to its fullest potential for solar power, the output of power produced would eclipse the amount of power the United States consumed in 2010 (Milbrandt et al., 2014, pp. 478, 480). Focusing in on the southwest United States (namely California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada), we can see a high concentration of marginal lands. In these 5 states, there are 121,928 square kilometers of marginal lands available

abandoned lands in US.jpg

Marginal Lands in the United States by County. (Picture: Milbrandt et al., 2014, p. 477)

for solar power. With the efficiency of current solar technologies, this region has the potential to produce 630 GWh (gigaWatt hours), which is enough power to provide about 15 percent of the United States’ energy consumption in 2010. 630 GWh is enough energy to power an iPhone 5 for 180 million years or the average American household for over 58 thousand years. In short, there is a high level of potential output for solar power, particularly in this region. As stated previously, there is already one farm (San Luis Obispo) occupying less than 1 percent of these lands making nearly 50 percent of the projected power. If that level of output was achieved on all of the marginal lands in this region, we would have more than 30,000 GWh available to use. That’s a lot of iPhones.

Solar power is effective wherever there is sunlight, but marginal lands in the southwest United States have an advantage over other marginal lands in the US, like Alaska or the Northeast, because of the amount of sun the area gets year round. On average, most areas in the southwest get more than 300 days of sunshine per year (Lenart, 2008), compared to around 100 days per year in the Northeast. How direct the sunlight is also plays a large role. Because these states are farther south, they receive more direct sun rays all through the year, making it easier to capture and convert more energy. The same output would not be possible in the Northeast or Northwest because the tilt of the earth makes sunlight rather indirect in this region during the winter. The Southeast United States would also make sense. However, there is much less marginal land available in this region, making the Southwest United States the optimal area.

There are many parties or individuals who may believe that this is not the ideal course of action. Ecologists, for example, would claim that building solar farms (or anything for that matter) in the marginal lands would greatly disrupt the lives of the plants and animals living there: “‘Some people would argue that desert organisms are as resilient as they come,’ [Darren] Sandquist [Cal State Fullerton biologist] said. ‘But they are vulnerable and sensitive because they are living on the edge – limited water, very warm temperatures, very cold nights during certain times’” (Brennan, 2009) Many different plants and animals thrive in the conditions the marginal lands provide. Sandquist points to the biotic crusts – networks of cyanobacteria and lichens; “Losing them can lead to massive dust storms” (Brennan, 2009). Building a solar farm would not impact the ecosystem very much. Placing solar panels on concrete support structures above the ground would not require a lot of digging, and would also hold the sand in place. Animals that live under the surface would not be greatly affected. Types of vegetation like cacti could also remain. While a solar farm would require a large plot of land, it would not require the destruction of an ecosystem. Sandquist also says “’I think that’s a tradeoff we have to accept. It’s part of becoming less reliant on oil, and more reliant on solar and wind power’” (Brennan 2009). Compared to the potential effects oil can have on an ecosystem (or even hydraulic fracturing, which requires the use of millions of gallons of water and risks high levels of water contamination), solar farms seem like an excellent choice.

Natural gas and oil companies would also not really approve of the plan. A call for more clean energy has the potential to really cut into profits for them. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Instead of spending money on campaigns against clean energies or promoting oil, they could use that money for a solar power start-up. Rather than fight the solar industry, they could join it. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobile, has been quoted as saying “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” (Koronowski & Romm, 2013) For starters, humanity would have a nice, habitable place to live. By acting now to stop the effects of climate change, we can avoid most, if not all, of the suffering Tillerson seems to want to avoid. Tillerson also missed “the billions of dollars…, thousands of lives lost, millions displaced, and rampant ecological destruction due to the carbon emissions that cause climate change” (Koronowski & Romm, 2013). Solar power is an industry that is only just starting to pick up speed, and Tillerson could greatly profit. If companies like Exxon Mobile invested in solar as much as they invest in oil, they could grow very rapidly and help the economy by providing jobs while taking advantage of government incentives that may or may not exist in a few years. These companies should also make the transition now, while there’s room in the market. There is a finite amount of oil in the earth, and once we exhaust it, there will be no more market or potential profits for an oil company. When that time comes, renewable energy sources will be the best market available. Jumping on board now will save them the hassle of jumping on board in the future, when the market could be incredibly full. They don’t have to lose out simply because there’s a new source of energy, and they don’t have to completely give up their claims in the oil industry. They should, however, invest in solar power in order to remain profitable companies in the future.

While many people know the result of using fossil fuels and the alarming rate of global climate change, there is still the question of what the best way to take advantage of this new more environmentally friendly solar technology is. By locating solar farms on marginal lands we are utilizing otherwise unusable, unproductive lands and turning them into high-functioning, power-producing areas. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and placing the funds and effort into more renewable energy sources can greatly reduce our carbon footprint and slow down climate change. This is certainly a large task to undergo, but by changing our source of power to solar this is a big step in the transformation to a sustainable future. As we make our way into the future, there will be technological advances that will continue to make the switch more economical and seamless. As conventional energy sources like fossil fuels continue to become more scarce and less affordable there is a growing need to confront this energy crisis that we are faced with and start to make decisions that we will be able to benefit from in the future and not just in the short term. If this problem is not confronted head on not only are we only going to continue the cycle of unclean energy use we will also risk the health of future generations. By making the switch to solar, not only are we helping in the reduction of climate change now but we are showing the next generation that there is an economical and environmentally friendly way of changing the power source we rely on. Besides, a solar spill would just be a bright, sunny day.


Brennan, P. (2009). Desert damage: the dark side of solar power?. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news157617181.html

Fthenakis, V.m., and H.c. Kim. (2011). Photovoltaics: Life-cycle analyses. Solar Energy, 85(8), 1609- 1628. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.solener.2009.10.002

International Energy Agency. (2012). CO2 emissions from fuel combustion highlights. Retrieved from https://www.iea.org/co2highlights/co2highlights.pdf

Koronowski, R. & Romm, J. (2013). Exxon CEO: ‘What Good Is It To Save The Planet If Humanity Suffers?’. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/05/30/2076751/exxon-ceo- what-good-is-it-to-save-the-planet-if-humanity-suffers/

Lenart, M. (2008). Climate of the southwest. Retrieved from http://www.southwestclimatechange.org/climate/southwest/introduction

Milbrandt, A., Heimiller, D., Perry, A., & Field, C. B. (2014). Renewable energy potential on marginal lands in the United States. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, 29, 473-481. doi:http://dx.doi.org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1016/j.rser.2013.08.079

Quijano, E. (2012). Tar patches, deformed fish: Gulf shows signs of damage two years after oil spill. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tar-patches-deformed-fish-gulf-shows-signs-of-damage-two- years-after-oil-spill/

Reichelstein, Stefan, and Michael Yorston. (2013). The prospects for cost competitive solar pv power. Energy Policy 55, 117-27. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.11.003

Sivaraman, D., & Moore, M. (2012). Economic performance of grid-connected photovoltaics in California and Texas (United States): The influence of renewable energy and climate policies. Energy Policy, 29, 274 – 287. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2012.06.019

U.S. Energy Information Administration – Frequently asked questions. How much electricity does an American home use?. www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=97&t=3

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Topaz Solar Farm, Monthly”. Electricity Data Browser. Retrieved April 29, 2014 from http://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/browser/#/plant/57695



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