Let The Sun Shine In! Part 1: An introduction to solar energy

Solar energy is booming and is the fastest growing energy source for electric. Solar energy is a form of renewable energy that converts radiant light from the sun through photovoltaic panels. Solar energy is a clean and abundant form of energy that can provide electricity and heat for homes and businesses.

Solar Energy – Saving Us From Our Past

Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Once used they cannot be replenished. Right?  We cannot resurrect dinosaurs, kill them and wait for their bodies to produce oil. I love Jurassic Park – but guess what?  Jurassic Park is fiction.

Photo credit. https://www.pinterest.com/Oilprocom/boards

Fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas - are simply organic waste. However, that waste is old, really, really old. Actually older than the dinosaurs. Fossil fuels began their life as plants and diatoms (tiny animals) that lived in bogs and oceans during the Carboniferous Period. Heat and bacteria cooked these carbon-rich life forms. Sediment building up in layers caused compression. Simply put, over millions of years this compression formed oil and methane gas. 

Here is a modern day simplistic example. Trees grow by using the sun to produce energy. We call this process photosynthesis. When the tree has matured we can cut down the tree and use it for firewood.  This process releases that stored up energy and creates heat. Once we burn the tree for fuel we cannot burn it again. We can go and cut down another tree and another. But eventually, we would run out of trees.

Unlike trees, fossil fuels take a very long time to form. Too many human lifetimes to count. That’s why we refer to fossil fuels as finite. 

The Magic of Renewables

Renewable energy is energy that we can receive again and again. Wind, Solar, and Hydro-power are all renewable energies because they will not be depleted in a human time frame. In our human time frame, we use years, centuries and BC/AD to delineate time. Geologists, scientists who study the earth,  refer to eons, periods and epochs to discuss fossil fuels. 

So renewable energy is going to be available to us on planet earth – provided we do don’t destroy the earth first. Renewable energy comes to us from sunlight, wind, water, tides and geothermic heat. It is used to produce electricity and to heat air and water.

Renewables have many advantages both for consumers and to the planet as a whole. Renewable energy produces far less pollution and environmental degradation as do fossil fuels. Also, renewable energy in some form is available throughout the globe as opposed to coal which is located in certain geographic areas.

Concerns from governments and citizens are driving legislation to promote renewable energy in their communities. Renewables provide energy security and economic benefits as well as a source of cleaner energy.

Photo by American Public Power

Carbon Footprint – Boy Do We Have Big Feet

When we talk about pollution caused by fossil fuels, we often talk about our carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is simply the amount of fossil fuel emissions (specifically CO2) you create as you go about your life. You can look at your overall carbon footprint or you can look at the carbon footprint of an item or lifestyle choice. For example, I drive a CRV. I can look at the impact that my car has as I go about my work week.

There are several fun carbon footprints. Like this one from the EPA.


Electricity – Where does it Come From

Are you concerned about the effect of fossil fuels on the environment and want to reduce your carbon footprint? Solar is a clean energy that produces much less pollution than fossil fuels. The sun is here to stay. The sun is going to outlast our diminishing supply of oil.

In my state of Kentucky, we still produce 79% of electricity by burning coal, a very dirty energy source. You can look up your state's rankings and find out what percentage of your energy comes from coal. Many electric companies now give their customers a choice when choosing where their electricity comes from.

One of my reasons for going solar was a desire not to support that industry. According to the US Energy Information Administration coal supply’s 30% of the nation’s electricity usage.



Why Solar?

Solar has many advantages. Solar systems do not have power outages. Grid failures due to failing older systems and terrorism have become realities. An older inefficient system in the United States is failing. Ted Koppel wrote a book called Lights Out: a cyber-attack, a nation unprepared. What will you do when the lights go out for more than a few hours?

Photovoltaic (PV) systems are very reliable. Most solar panels have 20-25 year warranties. Maintenance for solar panels is low. In addition, no fuel has to be purchased by the corporation or the homeowner to “make” electricity from solar.

Safety is important. Solar systems are very safe compared to other forms of energy. One of the concerns in the past has been the lead-acid batteries and the care needed to keep them running properly. Lead acid batteries are being replaced by sealed lead acid and gel or AGM batteries which are safer.  

 “Tracking the Sun”, a report published annually by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds that solar prices continue to decline rapidly. 


Why Not Solar?

Like every other form of energy, solar has some drawbacks. The biggest drawback is that solar cannot run everything. For instance, central air conditioning and electric stoves require immense amounts of electricity.

Utilizing solar means being conscious of your energy consumption and using energy-efficient appliances.

Solar is affected by the weather, the tilt of the earth and where you live. Some places such as the southwest are naturally more conducive to solar then Alaska.

The most expensive and short-lived section of the solar energy system is the battery bank. Batteries are still relatively expensive and have a 3 – 5-year lifespan.

Another disadvantage of solar is that there are environmental and health concerns with the manufacturing of solar panels.


Progress and Future Projects

Solar has a very promising future. Prices of manufacturing PV panels is declining and making them more cost-efficient. Homeowners and industries alike are turning to solar. MIT produced a study in 2015 stating that solar had a large capacity for growth in the United States and would continue to grow as an industry.

Large solar farms have been developed and are powering communities. In addition, solar power jobs are growing and positively driving local economies. In 2015, some 210 000 people worked in the solar energy business.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been implementing renewable energy projects at abandoned and current mining locations. These cleanup projects add alternative energy to the area as well as working to clean up waterways and reduce greenhouse emissions.


Advantages for Lower-Income Residents

Low-Income communities can benefit from solar energy. This includes both rural and urban residents where the cost of utilities is a major stressor on the household's income. In addition, communities with high pollution such as ---- in coal country can benefit from cleaner air. Higher rates of asthma and cancer are indicative in areas that have coal-burning power plants.

To learn more about how solar affects low-income Americans visit www.lowincomesolar.org I highly recommend their video “Powering Communities”.

In this Introduction to solar, we examined what are renewable energies, the benefits of solar and the future of solar energy in America. In coming installments, we will continue to examine facets of solar energy, DIY solar, solar as an additional power source for power outages and solar as a national power source.


Ame Vanorio is the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center and a freelance writer. She lives off-grid with too many critters in Falmouth, Kentucky.

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