Jose Belliard- Building and Construction Technology
Jeffrey Brown- Geology
Colin McGuire- Environmental science
When we think about history both names and events come to mind. Even though there are more people than events, I could name more events than people. Only the most influential people in history go into the history books and only a select few names will live throughout human history. Some of the names that come to mind are Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison is often called the godfather of modern electricity-intensive living. Edison holds countless patents and is one of the world’s most renowned inventors. What most people do not know about him is that throughout his career he advocated for sustainable energy.
In 1931 Thomas Edison said to two of his friends “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” (Rogers, 2007). It is currently 2015; it has been almost a century since Edison spoke those. When Edison spoke those words he did not know about the exponential growth in the use of fossil fuels, in our use electricity, and in the global population. Thomas Edison is one of the greatest minds in human history and when he spoke those words he was giving a dire warning. The situation today is exponential more dire than Edison could have imagined. If we cannot learn from the advice of one of the greatest minds in human history, how will we survive as a species?
We have had almost a century to meditate on the words of the late Thomas Edison and now is the time to act on his vision of the future. The biggest problem facing humanity today, is not war and is not a pandemic, it is that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource and everything that is non-renewable will eventually run out. This is an immense problem because global infrastructure has become dependent on a steady stream of electricity and in 2014 86% of electricity in the United States was produced using non-renewable resources (EIA, 2015). Although issue of infrastructure are often taken up by politicians, this issue needs to be taken up by all people because if it is not solved it will shatter the core of our society. Our current methods for energy generation are not sustainable, but solar energy can meet our current and future energy demand through government legislation.
It is no surprise to anyone to say that the entire globe relies on electricity for everyday life. The world is so dependent on electricity it is impossible to imagine a life without it. With increasing technology and a rapid growing world population the globe’s reliance on electricity is increasing exponentially (IEA, 2014). The use of electricity has become mundane and many people do not think of where it comes from. The electric grid is the most important system in modern infrastructure because every other system in our infrastructure relies on it.
Our reliance on the electric grid makes the source of the electricity an important topic. At 90.7% the largest portion of the globe’s electricity comes from non-renewable resources (IEA, 2014). The non-renewable resources the world relies on are finite and will run out. The world relies too heavily on these unsustainable resources. In 2014 80% of the electricity consumed in the US came from fossil fuels (EIA, 2015). In a fifty-year span, between 1950 and 1999, fossil fuel use increased almost 5 times from 1.7 billion tons to 8 billion tons providing 85% of the world’s commercial energy in 1999 (Droege, 2002). The three main fossil fuels the world relies on are oil, coal, and natural gas all of which have ends in the not too distant future. It is predicted that oil could run out by the year 2050 (Droege, 2002). Coal and natural gas, which are becoming a more prevalent forms of direct energy, have longer outlooks than oil, however they are still not sustainable. Coal could be fully depleted by 2100 (Droege, 2002). The grim outlooks of fossil fuels call for a major energy overhaul. Societal need for a constant stream of electricity cannot be sustained in the future by fossil fuels. A shift towards sustainable energy is needed in order to sustain our growing need for electricity and to meet our current demand.
The energy crisis is one of the largest issues facing humanity today. An alternative must be found to satisfy the growing needs, without plundering resources for future generations, polluting the earth, and putting enormous pressure on energy-rich regions of the world (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). Figure 1 shows the world’s marketed energy consumption and projected energy consumption from 1980-2030 (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). The figure outlines a predicted dramatic increase in energy consumption, due to rising world population. To combat this radical trend we must meet and exceed current energy outputs with sustainable practices.
It is a common misconception that all forms of sustainable energy technology have equal potential for future energy production. Besides solar the other main contenders in terms of potential energy production capabilities are as follows in descending order of potential energy yield: wind, OTEC, biomass, hydro, geothermal, tidal, and wind (Perez et al., 2011, p. 7291). Solar’s potential energy in over 200 times larger than all other forms of sustainable energy combined (Perez et al., 2011, p. 7291). Figure two helps visualize energy potential (Perez et al., 2011). The world currently consumes around 16 TW a year and is projected to approach 30 TW a year by 2050 (Perez et al., 2011). Wind could potentially meet this demand but would be pushed to its maximum capacity (Perez et al., 2011, p. 7291). It would be hard to reach maximum capacity and with fluctuations in wind patterns it would not meet the world’s energy needs every year (Perez et al., 2011). Solar’s maximum production a year is around 23,000 TW (Perez et al., 2011, p. 7291). This is over 750 times the projected energy use in 2050. All the other forms of renewable energy combined could not meet future demand (Perez et al., 2011, p. 7291). The fact that we will not near to solars maximum potential is promising. It will be easier to meet our demand and there will be room for future growth. Solar energy is not one of the options to meet future demand but the only option to meet the future demand. With that said it cannot be ignored that solar is not a good match for the poles where there is limited sun. Luckily there are other forms of sustainable energy that work well there and should be utilized.
More Reasons Than One Reason
Although, running out of fossil fuels is a great reason to switch to solar, we are not running out today. There are however good reasons to switch to solar today. In recent years solar energy has become much more efficient through technological advancements which has lead to increased investment (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). Devabhaktuni et al. (2013) claim that recent advances in technology have led to a rapid expansion of the solar energy market; in 2010 alone the total yield of the world’s photovoltaic systems grew by 72% compared to recent years. Devabhaktuni et al. (2013) maintain that the cost of installing solar energy systems, both domestically and at a larger scale, is steadily declining:
The cost of PV installation was $2 per unit of generating capacity in 2009, which came-down to about $1.50 in 2011. According to industry analysis, this price is slated to reach $1 per unit of generating capacity by 2013(p.562).
Kammen (2014) cites that the price of an individual solar PV panel has dropped 75 percent alone since 2008, and rooftop solar panels in 2012 cost about 1 percent of what they did in 1979. This is a promising trend because many of the problems people have with solar energy deal with the issue of cost. Many areas of the world continue to advance solar technology, making the shift towards renewable solar energy and away from finite fossil fuels much more attainable (Kammen, 2014). The price of solar continues to drop and because of this it is becoming more readily available.
Many areas across the United States are seeing increased solar PV technology manufacturing and production. Silicon Valley, California has always been known of one of the frontier technology sector areas throughout the country. Kammen (2014) states that Silicon Valley is becoming one of the world leaders in solar technology innovation. He cites that this area is competing with large-scale operations such as factories in China, and various other countries throughout Europe that have already began to build their sustainable energy sectors. The United States has the potential to be a leader if not the leader in renewable and solar technological advancements.
The significant drop in price has led to substantially more investment. Another one of the benefits of solar is its ability to improve basic living standards in impoverished areas and developing countries (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). This has led to a large spike in international solar energy investment (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). This investment includes projects valued in the tens of millions of dollars (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). These projects have helped remote villages in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia (Devabbhaktuni et al., 2013). The solar energy produced from these projects is powering programs that develop the education, water supply, and healthcare systems these areas need. Not only is investing in solar energy protecting our energy future, but it is also helping develop remote and impoverished areas now.
It is clearly a problem that fossil fuels are finite and that we relay on them to function as a society. The only solution to this problem is to use a renewable resource to achieve sustainable energy. With the majority of our energy coming from non-renewable resources, we will use up the limited supply and subsequently no longer be able to meet the energy demand (Droege, 2002). If we shift our focus away from fossil fuels we can ensure our future energy demand will be met. Out of all the renewable energy sources, solar energy is the only one that can meet our current and future energy demand. A shift in this direction will not be easy, but with a specific plan of action and cooperation from all parties it is attainable. Some of these changes will incorporation an active involvement of the government. A good plan of action cannot be achieved without governmental regulations and incentives.
A shift towards renewable energy is going to take cooperation from not only the government but also homeowners and electric companies. A good example of this is a California-based solar electric company named Solar City. In his scholarly article Kammen (2014) explains how this company, along with many others, has forgone the simple sales method of solar panels. He goes on to explain that Solar City will place panels on your own roof that the company owns, so that you are leasing space for the company. In return for this you pay for the power that the panels produce at a federal government-subsidized locked-in rate that is much less than the market rate for local utility (Kammen, 2014). This type of cooperation is essential to a large-scale shift towards renewable energy and away from fossil fuels and other non-renewable forms of energy.
Not only is it important for the government to provide incentives and a subsidy to make it easier for homeowners and small businesses to afford solar energy; but government funded research is also important. Cooperation between solar technology innovators and the government is vital for large-scale solar technology implication. Kammen (2014) notes that innovation can be made more cost-effective by promoting collaboration in research, and encouraging technology collaboration between many different PV manufacturers. Kammen (2014) cites a federally funded shared research and PV development center in 2011. If solar technologies could be collaborated between the major PV technology manufacturers throughout the United States, it would greatly reduce the time and money needed for a full-scale solar energy shifts.
Locally, an application of these policies has been implemented in Dahlonega, Georgia where a commercial install was done recently. The solar panels were installed at a medical company (Commercial Case Study, n.d.). According to Commercial Case Study (n.d.) where the information was published this development will save them money by preventing any loss from power rate increases coming from the grid. The Federal Renewable Grant and the Georgia Clean Energy Tax Credit, which reduced the total cost of the solar panels by a 90%, furthered the whole project (Solar Energy USA, n.d.). Most impressive are the savings and benefits these technologies will have:
Over 35 years this system will offset more than 1,562 tons of CO2, equivalent to planting 37,273 trees or removing 49,291 gallons of gasoline from the road. In it’s first year it will produce over 58,484 kWh of energy (Commercial Case Study, n.d.).
This project is a major achievement in the solar innovation field, because it not only establishes a difference by cutting the medical facility’s reliance on fossil fuels, but also by becoming part of the solar energy renewable movement.
Shockingly, there are people who disagree with the lengths these programs go to promoting the use of solar power as the primary source of energy. They argue that absolutism is never a good thing and that our future prospects for sustainable energy should be more diverse. This demographic wants to focus equally on other sources of sustainable energy. This fear of solar absolutism emanates from the notion that some areas do not get as many solar rays as others do (see figure 3). This greatly affects the amount of electricity that can be produced.
Addressing these concerns, it is true that focusing 100% on solar would prove to be a huge mistake, however the idea that other sources of sustainable energy could provide the same output of solar is simply not possible. According to Perez, Zweibel, Hoff (2011), the amount of renewable energy that can be harvested from the sun is 200 times larger than all of the other substantial forms renewable energy combined (p. 7291). As seen in figure 2 and mentioned previously, only solar has the potential to meet future demand. The graphic shows current yearly energy consumed, potential yearly energy yields for renewable sources, and total the amount of energy left for non-renewable sources. Therefore, showing the total yearly potential of solar far outweighs all other sources of renewable energy combined. It is clearly depicted that the yearly potential of solar far outweighs the total. Figure 3 shows why some people want to stray away from solar and people in areas of low potential solar yields should. Wind energy has substantial potential (Perez et al., 2011). Since no area on the globe can produce 100% of the potential yield of any sustainable resource it is likely that the areas with low sun will have to have some of their energy imported and offset that cost with non-solar sustainable sources of energy.
Another concern is the amount of funding and direct money that solar energy costs. Being a recently blooming technology it is reasonable that the amount of money it costs is high enough to make the most sustainable enthusiastic person shy at the idea of acquiring a couple of solar panels. In addition, the idea of government regulation over good investment creates the idea of another burden taxpayers will have to endure. That is just one possibility of the issue. For instance, Kimmen (2014) in his article states:
First, clear, long-term deployment policies can reduce market uncertainties and encourage more efficient industry-wide consolidation, which contributed to the improved financial performance of major PV manufacturers in 2013 (p. 46).
This in general causes a decrease in prices, which can lead to a bigger demand for solar energy, and a higher level of affordability for business and consequently for individuals who would also like to invest in solar energy.
Another way to look at price is to calculate the priceless. Our society runs on electricity and that electricity comes from non-renewable resources. These resources will run out and the only renewable resource that can meet the energy demand is solar. Our society will not go back to the Stone Age so whatever the cost of solar is, is the price we will pay. We must resist the urge for short term thinking and invest in our future.
There is no escaping the rising global need for energy. The world relies on the electric grid for nearly everything, and without it society as we know it would be drastically different. With this rising energy dependence comes the need for a more reliable and efficient form of energy. Current energy demands are supplied greatly by finite resources, which cannot be sustained for future generations. Solar energy is the only viable renewable source of energy that can meet this rising global demand. This resource has an almost unlimited capacity and will be crucial in sustaining an efficient and safe electric grid for the future.
A shift in this direction is going to take cooperation on multiple fronts. Solar energy needs to be invested in by both government and the private sector. Regulation and incentives is the key to this increase along with programs to offset costs. As well as awareness and making the population understand the benefits of solar energy. The untapped potential of solar energy is staggering and it is important that citizens in the United States and around the world are informed of this and understand it. If we can achieve a policy shift and educate the general public, we can move away from the finite non-renewable and move towards a secure energy future through the utilization of solar energy.
Commercial Case Study: 168 Panel Solar PV Array in Dahlonega, GA. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://solarenergy-usa.com/install/168-panel-solar-pv-array-in-dahlonega-ga/
Devabhaktuni, V., Alam, M., Shekara Sreenadh Reddy Depuru, S., Green II, R. C., Nims, D., & Near, C. (2013). Solar energy: Trends and enabling technologies. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 19(0), 555-564. doi:http://dx.doi.org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1016/j.rser.2012.11.024
Droege, P. (2002). Renewable energy and the city: Urban life in the age of fossil fuel depeletion and climate change. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 22(2), 87-99. doi: 10.1177/0270467602022002003
International Energy Agency. (2014). Key world energy statistics. Retrieved from http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/keyworld2014.pdf
Kammen, D. M. (2014). Solar energy innovation and Silicon Valley. Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, 70(5), 45-53. doi:1177/009634021456837
Perez, R., Zweibel, K., & Hoff, T. E. (2011). Solar power generation in the US: Too expensive, or a bargain?. Energy Policy, 39(11), 7290-7297. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.08.052
Rogers, H. (2007, June 3). Current thinking. Time. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/magazine/03wwln-essay-t.html?_r=1&
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2015, April). Monthly energy review. Office of Energy Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/mer.pdf