By: Ryan Nichols
The use of energy plays a pivotal role in our daily lives. The United Nations has set a goal to “[e]nsure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”[i] Renewable energy continues to be at the forefront of the energy sector around the globe to accomplish this goal. Renewable energy is “energy generated from natural resources- such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat . . . and [is] continuously replenished.”[ii] Renewable energy never runs out.[iii] With current issues such as climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and approaching the limits of energy from Earth’s fossil fuels to satisfy the growing population,[iv] countries are hastening their efforts to come up with an energy platform that not only provides sustainable energy for their citizens, but is also cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Fortunately, the answer may be closer than initially perceived, and some countries, including the United States, China, Australia, and Germany,[v] are already taking advantage of advancing technology and reaping its benefits. The answer may lie in solar panels that utilize solar energy. Solar panels are made up of multiple cells and panels comprised of electrical circuits that capture the sun’s energy (photons) to produce electricity.[vi] This can generate enough electricity to power homes and businesses; the more panels you have, the more electricity you can generate.[vii]
Is Solar Energy Sustainable for Countries?
Sustainability is achieved when society’s present demands are satisfied, without depriving the chance of future generations to reach theirs.[viii] As a “natural nuclear reactor”,[ix] solar panels take advantage of the single most sustainable resource on the planet: the sun.[x] Since the sun is going to keep shining for several more eons,[xi] solar energy can provide a comprehensive and continuous source of energy to meet any countries’ demands for generations to come.[xii]
By using this unique and sustainable energy source, several countries are already taking advantage of solar energy to combat climate change and carbon emissions. For example, China was labeled as the “deadliest country for air pollution” in 2016 by the World Health Organization.[xiii] In order to reverse this label, China dramatically amplified its investment in renewable energy production, thus becoming the biggest producer of solar power in the world.[xiv] Notably, China is set to increase its energy output from renewable energy sources from “11 [percent] to 20 [per-cent] by 2020” in order to reverse or mitigate the negative role the country has played on the environment. China is “step[ping] forward as a world leader in progressive climate policy,”[xv] and solar energy will play a pivotal role in accomplishing its goals of a “low-carbon future.”[xvi]
Likewise, Germany continues to gain support for its renewable energy revolution which has focused on solar and wind technologies.[xvii] Astonishingly, Germany produced enough renewable energy in 2016 to “cover 32% of the country’s electricity consumption[.]”[xviii] In an attempt to continue this trend, Germany has subsidized individual solar panels to wean off the country’s reliance on coal because of global-warming concerns.[xix]
Is Solar Energy Cost-Effective and Environmentally Friendly?
In addition to acquiring sustainable energy from photons, recent technological changes in the efficiency and storage of solar panels has provided countries with a cost-effective and environmentally friendly platform for its citizens. Solar panels are cost-effective by providing a cheaper, limitless option that generates more capacity.[xx] Additionally, solar panels are environmentally friendly by emitting zero greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.[xxi]
Current advances in technology has focused on improving the efficiency of solar panels and the storage of solar energy.[xxii] Earlier this year, researchers at MIT developed an absorber-emitter to improve the efficiency of solar panels.[xxiii] This emitter is placed above the cells and acts as a funnel on the solar panel.[xxiv] The emitter controls the photons that flow through the panel; it captures the photons and then converts the energy into heat, which can then be used to produce electricity.[xxv] This technology can help produce more heat than the previous cells, thus improving the efficiency of the solar panel to generate electricity.[xxvi]
Additionally, this past June, researchers from the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology and Hanyang University conducted a study that reached a new world efficiency record of perovskite solar cells.[xxvii] This study showed a new method that mitigates any defects on the solar cells associated with converting sunlight to electricity.[xxviii] This is key to improving efficiency and providing a high-performance solar cell.[xxix]
Further, storage for solar has also improved dramatically. The research conducted by MIT (mentioned above) is one example. By focusing on the heat, and not the electricity, this technology can lead to a viable thermal storage system.[xxx] Because heat is easier to store than electricity, this technology can increase efficiency and provide a continuous energy source when the sun is not shining.[xxxi] Additionally, the UK is developing grid storage stations utilizing solar energy in order to provide a broader range of access across capacity markets for its citizens.[xxxii]
In addressing solar panel’s cost-effectiveness, rapid advances in technology, some mentioned above, have weakened the main counterargument against the cost of solar panels. Specifically, critics propose that solar panels are not affordable for most individuals and are therefore not a viable energy substitution. Critics compare the cost to other renewable energy sources or coal,[xxxiii] which is the least expensive fossil fuel.[xxxiv] They propose these are still more viable options to meet energy needs. In economic terms, much like the beginning eras of cars and televisions, critics are concerned that technology for solar panels has not advanced enough to be treated as a commodity. However, the data does not support this notion, or it won’t for much longer. Prices of solar power have dropped 62% since 2009 and have no indication of leveling out any time soon.[xxxv] In fact, it is estimated that by 2025 the average global cost of using solar may be cheaper than using coal.[xxxvi] With companies focusing on going green and the relatively new market for solar energy, technology in solar panels is expected to rapidly evolve to further cut costs by an additional 65% by 2025.[xxxvii] Countries leading the charge are China, which expects to see solar energy less expensive than coal by 2030. Additionally, Sunbelt countries (countries that receive the most sun)[xxxviii] are forcing competition among their respective energy companies in order to lower costs.[xxxix]
In addition to plummeting costs for individuals and countries because of technological advances, solar panels also benefit the environment by utilizing an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.[xl] Greenhouse gases, the most common of which are carbon dioxide and methane, are created from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal.[xli] These gases “trap radiation from the sun and warm the planet’s surface. As concentrations of these gases increase, more warming occurs than would happen naturally.”[xlii] Solar panels present a viable alternative to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases, by providing a similar energy output to coal without the harmful effects.[xliii]
Also, unlike fossil fuels that have a capped number, solar energy is environmentally friendly because it is not a scarce resource.[xliv] Because solar energy can be infinitely replenished by the sun, the earth does not have to be degraded in order to reap its benefits. Conversely, the drilling of fossil fuels “erodes the ground and pollutes the water supply” to achieve production.[xlv] Thus, solar energy provides an energy source that is limitless and benefits the environment.
Are There any Shortcomings of Using Solar Panels?
Initially, the biggest shortcoming of solar panels was cost. As previously noted, technology is quickly resolving this issue to make solar panels more cost-effective. However, there are still several shortcomings that need to be addressed. Namely, even though solar energy does not directly affect the environment, the solar panels do. Additionally, there remains concern surrounding the reliability of solar energy in parts of the world where sunlight is not at a premium.
First, solar panels affect the environment because large solar plants and panels must be built across wide stretches of land to maximize output from sunlight.[xlvi] Since these plants and panels must be placed in areas of constant sunlight, such as deserts, they can negatively affect the ecosystems of these areas by destroying habitats for hundreds of species.[xlvii] Additionally, the materials used in building, transporting, installing, and maintaining the panels can present serious hazardous waste concerns from the dangerous chemicals involved in these processes.[xlviii]
A second shortcoming is exposed in the name: solar energy can only be utilized when there is sunlight.[xlix] This presents issues with predicting how much energy will be needed during the morning and at night when sunlight is at its lowest.[l] This becomes a bigger problem when attempting to calculate energy storage for periods of days that are rainy or overcast.[li] Importantly, this does not mean countries need to be close to the equator to capture more sunlight to make solar energy a viable option.[lii] For example, Germany is one of the world’s leading capacitors of solar energy and is nowhere close to the equator.[liii]
Despite environmental concerns and skepticism surrounding providing a continuous energy platform during nonpeak hours of the day, the plethora of benefits solar energy can offer has countries developing new technologies at an astounding rate to address any shortcomings. Solar panels may be the key to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable
[i] Malfridur Omarsdottir & Robert Lindner, We Need Concrete Targets for Sustainable Energy, united nations university, (Sept. 15, 2015), https://unu.edu/publications/articles/concrete-targets-sustainable-energy.html [https://perma.cc/8MAN-WUE9].
[ii] What is Renewable Energy? pennstate extension (Aug. 8, 2017), https://extension.psu.edu/what-is-renewable-energy [https://perma.cc/4MW7-ANPC].
[iv] See Richard Gray, The Biggest Energy Challenges Facing Humanity, bbc (March 13, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170313-the-biggest-energy-challenges-facing-humanity [https://perma.cc/KEG4-6H6C].
[v] See Nye Longman, Top 10 Solar-Producing Countries, energy digital (May 12, 2017), http://www.energydigital.com/renewable-energy/top-10-solar-producing-countries [https://perma.cc/U8W8-6WZ6].
[vi] See Martin DeBono, What is Solar Energy and How do Solar Panels Work? sunpower (Oct. 25, 2017) [hereinafter DeBono], https://us.sunpower.com/blog/2017/10/25/how-does-solar-energy-work/ [https://perma.cc/2955-MQWH].
[viii] Brian Barth, Is Solar Energy Sustainable? greenliving [hereinafter Barth], http://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/energy-efficiency/is-solar-energy-sustainable [https://perma.cc/QE9E-XMVL]. (last visited Oct. 14, 2017).
[ix] DeBono, supra note 6.
[x] Barth, supra note 8.
[xi] See How Old is the Sun? nasa, https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/sun-age/en/ [https://perma.cc/4292-MLE6]. (last updated Oct. 24, 2017).
[xii] See Barth, supra note 8.
[xiii] Alexandra Simon-Lewis, How China is Leading the World in Solar Energy Production, wired (June 2, 2017), http://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-climate-change-policy-solar-production [https://perma.cc/P2AV-YSWK].
[xvi] See Ma Tianjie, China’s Ambitious New Clean Energy Targets, the diplomat (Jan. 14, 2017), https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/chinas-ambitious-new-clean-energy-targets/ [https://perma.cc/Q2GJ-XMTC].
[xvii] See Jeffrey Ball, Germany’s High-Priced Energy Revolution, fortune (Mar. 14, 2017) [hereinafter Ball], http://fortune.com/2017/03/14/germany-renewable-clean-energy-solar/ [https://perma.cc/8GY8-8ZHX].
[xx] See Jess Shankleman & Chris Martin, Solar Could Beat Coal to Become the Cheapest Power on Earth, bloomberg (Jan. 3, 2017) [hereinafter Shankleman], https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-03/for-cheapest-power-on-earth-look-skyward-as-coal-falls-to-solar [https://perma.cc/CTA9-W4JG].
[xxi] See Why are Soar Panels Good for the Environment? the renewable energy hub, https://www.renewableenergyhub.co.uk/solar-panels/why-are-solar-panels-good-for-the-environment.html [https://perma.cc/ZWZ9-A6C8]. (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).
[xxii] New Solar Panel Technology: Learn About Advances in Solar Energy, energy sage (Oct. 17, 2017), http://news.energysage.com/solar-panel-technology-advances-solar-energy/ [https://perma.cc/28SR-V9YZ].
[xxiii] James Temple, Hot Solar Cells: By Converting Heat to Focused Beams of Light, a new Solar Device Could Create Cheap and Continuous Power, mit tech. rev., https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603497/10-breakthrough-technologies-2017-hot-solar-cells/ [https://perma.cc/NC8E-VR3T]. (last visited Nov. 6, 2017) [hereinafter Temple].
[xxvii] Researchers hit new World Efficiency Records With Perovskite Solar Cells, phys.org (July 25, 2017), https://phys.org/news/2017-07-world-efficiency-perovskite-solar-cells.html [https://perma.cc/GZG8-G28T].
[xxx] Temple, supra note 29.
[xxxii] See Electricity and Energy Storage, world nuclear ass’n, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/electricity-and-energy-storage.aspx [https://perma.cc/D8NV-Q8L5]. (last updated August 2017).
[xxxiii] See Richard Gaughan, The Case for & Against Solar Energy, sciencing (April 25, 2017) [hereinafter Gaughan], https://sciencing.com/case-against-solar-energy-19638.html [https://perma.cc/2RJ6-L9FM].
[xxxiv] See What you Need to Know About Energy, the nat’l acad. of sci. [hereinafter NAS], http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/fossil-fuels/coal/ [https://perma.cc/VD79-2VVH]. (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).
[xxxv] Shankleman, supra note 20.
[xxxvii] See id.
[xxxviii] Living in the Sun Belt: The Solar Power Potential for the Middle East, solar one (July 26, 2016), http://solarone.me/2016/07/27/living-in-the-sun-belt-the-solar-power-potential-for-the-middle-east/ [https://perma.cc/WF59-26HD].
[xxxix] Shankleman, supra note 20.
[xl] Gaughan, supra note 33.
[xli] See NAS, supra note 34.
[xlii] What are Greenhouse Gases and how do They Affect the Climate? U.S. Energy info. admin., https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=81&t=11 [https://perma.cc/Z58H-MRSZ]. (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).
[xliv] See Luke Richardson, Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels: How do They Compare?, energy sage (May 14, 2017), http://news.energysage.com/solar-energy-vs-fossil-fuels/ [https://perma.cc/2ELV-PWD4].
[xlvi] See Gaughan, supra note 33.
[xlviii] See Environmental Impacts of Solar Power, union of concerened scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-solar-power.html#.WfE00GhSzIU [https://perma.cc/8AZR-HR8D] (last updated March 5, 2013).
[xlix] Mathias Aarree Maehlum, Solar Energy Pros and Cons, energy informative (Aug. 5, 2017), http://energyinformative.org/solar-energy-pros-and-cons/ [https://perma.cc/2HT3-CB8D].
[liii] See Ball, supra note 17.