A Case for Renewables with Solar Photovoltaics: A Power Engineer’s Perspective
Why should we consider solar in design? Here's an argument put together by a power engineer.
The use of solar energy technology is expanding rapidly; however, few people actually understand this technology or the reason why it is important.
Non-Renewable and Renewable Energy
Energy resources can be either non-renewable or renewable.
Non-renewable energy comes from sources that are finite and will someday vanish.
Most non-renewable energy sources are fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Carbon is the main element. Fossil fuels are found inside the earth, and they formed in a similar way about 300-360 million years ago. They are found in fixed amounts and are being used faster than they can be replaced.
Other non-renewable energy sources are nuclear and biomass. Biomass energy is a renewable energy source that can also be a non-renewable energy source. As biomass energy uses the energy found in plants, it will become non-renewable if feedstocks are not replanted as fast as they are used.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook, the world generates more than 66% of its electricity from fossil fuels and another 8% from nuclear energy.
Renewable energy comes from sources that are not in danger of being exhausted. It will not come to an end. Some types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, waves, and tidal. Sunny skies, strong winds, fast-moving water, abundant plant matter, heat from the earth, hydrogen sources, and ocean tides and waves can each provide a vast and constantly replenished supply of energy. Bioenergy, hydropower, wind power, and solar energy (both thermal and photovoltaic) seem to be the most important renewable energy choices for the future.
Why Is Renewable Energy Important?
We are living in an increasingly environmentally conscious world, so green energy is a common subject nowadays.
This is at least partly because modern life is becoming more dependent on electrical energy, the generation of which still depends on techniques involving the burning of fossil fuels. This system is not sustainable in the long run. Even if we ignore the ongoing problem of air pollution, the scarcity of these resources will eventually impede the growth of human civilization.
The following are benefits associated with the use of renewable energy sources:
Fossil fuels are a highly valued energy source. They are quite inexpensive to extract. They can also be stored, piped, or shipped anywhere on Earth. However, burning fossil fuels is harmful for the environment. Communities, rivers, ecosystems, and entire landscapes are being damaged or even devoured by mining activities that are required for the extraction of fossil fuels.
Also, the air and water pollution caused by coal and natural gas plants is associated with breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, cancer, premature death, and many other serious problems.
It has become clear that humans have caused most of the past century's global warming by liberating so-called greenhouse gases as they power their modern lives. This global warming is causing changes to the Earth's climate that varies from place to place.
About 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is occurring. The overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change documents both current impacts with significant costs and extraordinary future risks to society and natural systems. Climate change puts the well-being of all people at risk.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but other air pollutants, such as methane, also cause global warming. Different energy sources produce different amounts of these pollutants.
CO2 acts like a blanket insulating the planet and excessive concentrations allow less heat to escape into space than is generated on the surface from incident sunlight. The net effect is a gradual, global warming.
According to the SOLARIMPULSE Foundation, “The average temperature of the planet has increased by 0.8º C (1.44° F) compared to the end of the 19th century. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than all previous decades since the beginning of the statistical surveys in 1850. At the pace of current CO2 emissions, scientists expect an increase of between 1.5° and 5.3°C (2.7° to 9.54°F) in average temperature by 2100. If no action is taken, it would have harmful consequences to humanity and the biosphere”.
Renewable energy technologies are clean sources of energy that have a much lower environmental impact than conventional energy technologies. Most of them produce little to no global warming emissions. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. Geothermal and biomass energy systems emit some air pollutants, though total air emissions are generally much lower than those of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Hydropower can upset river ecosystems both upstream and downstream from the dam.
Increasing the supply of renewable energy would allow us to replace harmful energy sources and reduce global warming emissions.
Economy and Jobs
Most renewable energy investments are spent on materials and workmanship to build and maintain the facilities, rather than on costly energy imports.
Compared with fossil fuel technologies, which are typically mechanized and capital intensive, renewable energy is more labor-intensive. Solar panels need humans to manufacture and install them; wind farms need technicians for maintenance.
Renewable energy already supports thousands of jobs in the world.
The wind energy and solar industries create many full-time positions worldwide in manufacturing, project development, construction, installation, operations and maintenance, and transportation and logistics. They also employ financial, legal, and consulting services.
Increased support for renewable energy could create even more jobs.
Local governments take advantage of property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners. Owners of land on which systems are built often receive lease payments per megawatt of installed capacity, as well as for power line easements and road rights-of-way. They may also earn royalties based on annual revenues. Farmers can generate new sources of income by producing feedstocks for biomass power facilities.
Greenmatch has produced an interesting video regarding jobs creation worldwide; it can be seen here.
According to The SOLAR Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census 2018, the USA now has over 242,000 solar workers. These jobs are providing clean, affordable, renewable energy in all 50 states. The Census can be read here.
Security of Supply
Energy security becomes more and more of an issue in the face of worldwide increasing energy demand and uncertainty about the stability of prices, the availability of resources, and delivery conditions. In addition to damaging the climate, being dependent on burning imported fossil fuels is not good for economies and may leave countries vulnerable.
Growth in renewable energy production means that countries can power themselves with clean, green electricity that does not rely on imports. Individuals can also take power into their own hands, generating electricity to supply homes and businesses.
It is also true, and important to consider, that a substantial flow of renewables into the world’s energy mixture could also result in new, unexpected dependencies such as critical materials.
Reliability and Resilience
Renewable-energy generators are less susceptible to extensive failure because they are distributed and modular: distributed, because they are dispersed throughout different regions, increasing the reliability and resilience of the entire electrical grid during high-impact events such as extreme weather, especially when combined with energy storage and other advanced grid technologies; modular, because in the case of wind and solar, they are composed of several discrete wind turbines or solar arrays. Even if some of the equipment in the system experiences a failure, other portions of the system can remain in operation.
Additionally, in cases where continuity of the power supply is vital for operations, renewable energy and supporting technologies, such as energy storage, can be combined to form self-supporting microgrids.
Also, reliability and resilience are crucial for national security, as stated in the American Council of Renewable Energy (ACORE) paper entitled “The Role of Renewable Energy in National Security”, dated October 2018 and available here.
Energy resources can be either non-renewable or renewable. Non-renewable energy is not sustainable as it will eventually be exhausted.
Moreover, this kind of energy is causing serious damage to the environment—global warming and climate change pose a serious threat to life on Earth.
As a viable alternative, there is renewable energy. As its name suggests, these energy sources are inexhaustible and significantly reduce problematic environmental effects. As additional benefits, renewable energy can improve the local economy, create jobs, improve the security of the energy supply by reducing the need for imports, and increase reliability and resilience by reducing system failure rates and recovery times after high-impact events. Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing options as technology improves and costs continue to decrease.
This article is considered an opinion piece. The views expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the site or site management.