Importance of Solar Energy
As the United States’ reliance on technology grows at an exponential rate, the need for a permanently sustainable power source becomes more important every day. Today, most of the power in the United States is generated by burning fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas (U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Fossil fuels cannot be used forever, however, as they will not be able keep up with the demands of our society in the future. There is a finite supply of fossil fuels on Earth and using them to generate energy has introduced a massive amount of greenhouse gases to our environment, which could eventually have a “significant adverse effect on the climate” (Reddy 1). Because of this, it is important that society begins to search for new, clean, and renewable sources of energy. With new advancement in technology, solar power generation is becoming a more competitive option. Solar power generation is a form of energy production in which the sun’s rays are harnessed to generate energy. Solar photovoltaics (solar PV) seem to be the most promising form of generation, as they make up 98% of all solar generation capacity today (Schmalensee 2). Because of this, this paper will focus on the practicality of solar PV. By analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of solar power generation, it can be concluded that solar photovoltaics are a promising option for producing a significant portion of the United States’ energy after several circumstances are met, such as the improvement of solar photovoltaic technology and the eventual depletion of non-renewable resources.
Solar PV has a promising road of technological development ahead which will make it a competitor with other sources of energy across the United States. The increasing incentives for discovering an alternative source of energy have led the U.S. government to allocate billions of dollars towards research in solar photovoltaics (Schmalensee 2). This research has led to advancements and discoveries of new technology that can make solar power generation more viable. Crystalline silicon solar photovoltaics, the most prominent and economically viable form of solar photovoltaic today, have increased in power efficiency from about 15% in the 1990s to nearly 20% today, and are expected to reach 25% in the near future (Reddy, 13). With the improvement of efficiency, silicon photovoltaics are becoming more competitive in the commercial industry every day. Another promising avenue for research in solar photovoltaics is in thin-film technology. This form of photovoltaic has multiple advantages over standard silicon PV, including reduced manufacturing cost, material use, and flexibility for more versatile form factors (Schmalensee 34). While thin film PV have lower efficiency levels, their lower manufacturing costs allow them to edge out silicon PV in cost per watt generated (Reddy 34). Within the coming years, thin film photovoltaics have the potential to occupy a niche market for extremely flexible and low-cost use. Overall, the advancement of design and manufacturing processes as well as the discovery of new forms of solar photovoltaics have poised solar photovoltaics to be competitive in terms of efficiency which other sources of energy. Continued research in this field could push solar over the edge as the best form of energy production.
Being Environmentally Conscious
With the increased requirement of energy production, it is becoming important that society looks for cleaner ways to produce energy in order to avoid a full-scale disturbance of Earth’s natural climate. International communities, such as the United Nations, have predicted that “as much as 25,000 GW of zero-carbon energy will be required by 2050” in order to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the earth’s climate” through global warming and mass pollution (Schmalensee 125). Solar photovoltaics are an attractive prospect to fulfil this need as they create no pollution as a byproduct of energy. This contrasts with fossil fuels, which are the primary producers of greenhouse gases in the world (Schmalensee 1). By shifting from the use of fossil fuels and coal to solar power, greenhouse gas emissions can be nearly completely cut, halting the earth’s trend towards worldwide destabilization. Additionally, silicon, the primary ingredients in solar panels, is recyclable and safe to humans and animals (Reddy 29). This contrasts greatly with resources such as petroleum, which have polluted the environment by massive oil spills that have been known to wipe out entire coastal habitats and cause numerous health problems for local inhabitants (Clifton 88). By switching to solar power, the amount of health problems for people impacted by pollution could be greatly reduced. The United States could also greatly reduce the impact it has on the environment by adopting solar photovoltaics. Overall, it is important that the United States explores environmentally-friendly sources of energy, or else we may turn the natural habitats of Earth that we know and love into desolate wastelands unsuitable for life. Solar panels offer a unique solution to this problem through their environmentally friendly materials and complete reduction of air pollution emissions.
As time goes on, it is important that the United States finds a source of power which can fulfill its power energy needs indefinitely. The United States’ current reliance on fossil fuels is destined to end as the world’s supply of these resources is soon to run out. A study from the Royal Society in London predicted that the world’s oil production would peak “probably before 2030” and would then decrease as the final oil reserves are exhausted (Miller and Sorrel). To make matters worse, the United States relies on foreign countries, which often form cartels to control prices, for most of its oil (Miller and Sorrel). By switching to an alternative energy source, the United States could protect itself from shortage crises and the influence of major controllers of oil and petroleum. Solar power generation is a fitting alternative because one person can’t prevent control the sunlight that hits the earth, and photovoltaics will always be able to generate energy so long as the sun is in the sky. The United States has enormous potential for scaling solar power generation, too. Getting the materials to create new solar panels isn’t a problem as silicon, the primary ingredient in the creation of photovoltaics, is one of the most abundant materials in the earth’s crust (Reddy 9). Solar panels also have the advantage over all other methods of power generation as they can be integrated into nearly any surface that receives sunlight, such as roofs, building facades, sun shades, and more (Pearce, A Path to Sustainable Futures). This inherent flexibility makes solar power a competitive option for fulfilling the United States’ power needs. Overall, the dwindling supply of non-renewables on Earth combined with solar power’s nearly unlimited scalability and flexibility put solar photovoltaics in a position to overtake non-renewables as a primary energy source in the years to come.
Economics of Solar Power
Despite all the positives of solar power generation, it won’t be practical for use until it can compete with other sources of energy economically. As improvements in technology make the manufacturing and maintenance of solar panels more affordable while nonrenewable energy sources become more expensive, solar power generation becomes more competitive. As explained earlier, with a fossil fuel production peak being “probable before 2030”, oil will become more expensive, and as such, alternative sources of energy should be able to compete economically (Miller). Solar photovoltaics are also making great strides in cost reduction as time goes on. Improved manufacturing techniques and increased efficiency have caused “PV Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) [to drop] by nearly 75% in the past seven years” (Haegal et al.). This pace of price reduction is much greater than anticipated by many experts (Schmalensee 103). With the current trajectory of prices, solar PV is on track to compete economically with non-renewables in the near future. Many governments also provide subsidies for using solar power to stimulate a reduction in carbon emissions (Schmalensee 212). These subsidies could be the push for solar to reach grid parity across the United States. For example, states like California have seen great success with their use of subsidies, where solar PV generates more than 13% of their energy as of 2016, a much higher portion than the national average (Haegal et al.). Subsidies placed by governments with the aim of reducing carbon emissions may be key for the success of solar PV in terms of price. Accounting all these factors, solar photovoltaics are on a path to compete with all other sources of power economically. Despite solar photovoltaics current price tag preventing them from widespread use across the nation, changes are expected to come in the recent years lead them to become more a viable option. The combination of increasing oil prices and lowering solar generation prices means that solar PV could eclipse fossil fuels in cost. Paired with subsidies, solar power generation makes an aggressive case for economic viability. When all these factors come to fruition, solar photovoltaics will be poised to take over the market for electric power generation.
Solar power still faces problems that make it impractical to use exclusively today. One of the biggest downfalls of solar power generation is that it can be very unreliable in the amount of energy it generates. The effectiveness of solar panels is determined by a great number of factors, including sun intensity, angle to the sun, and cloud cover (Pearce, Industrial Symbiosis). Therefore, solar panels do not perform well in areas that do not get a ton of sunlight or have frequent cloud cover. Because of this, solar power generation is unsuitable for some areas of the United States. Another problem that solar power generation has is that they only generate energy if the sun is up in the sky. Because of the intermittency of solar power generation, there is often a significant gap between the amount of energy that solar PV produce during the day and the demand that is required by the power grid at night (Pearce, Industrial Symbiosis). Some form of energy storage is required to deliver the demanded energy during the downtimes of energy production. Multiple solutions have been proposed to solve this problem, such as using batteries or creating a hybrid hydroelectric power station to store energy, but all of these require significant upfront and maintenance costs (Schmalensee 285). Advancements in newer technologies, such as hydrogen fuel creation and storage, have potential to allow solar-generated energy to be stored and retrieved flexibly without significant cost, but so far, no technology has developed enough to work on commercial scale (Haegal et al.). Until a suitable technology is brought up that can solve solar power’s storage problem, solar power is limited to acting as a complementary source of power.
In the final analysis, solar power generation is becoming a much more viable with the changing environment of our world. The inevitable exhausting of earth’s fossil fuels will create a void that will need to be filled by some form of renewable energy. By using solar power generation, the United States could free itself from its reliance on foreign countries for energy, reducing the possibility of shortage crises. The decreasing cost of production and the improving efficiency of solar photovoltaics will also allow solar power generation to step up as one of the most economically viable sources of renewable power. Because the world is pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid disrupting the earth’s environment, solar photovoltaics shine will shine through as one of the most attractive options of renewable sources of energy because of their inherent cleanliness, safety, and ability to integrate into building surfaces seamlessly. However, despite the increasing benefits of this technology, several roadblocks still exist, such as the problem of consistency of power generation. Current technologies of power storage cannot effectively mitigate this problem. Until viable solution is produced, solar power may be relegated to function more as a power source that will compliment more consistent methods of generating energy. Overall, as the technology of solar photovoltaics improves and solar becomes more relevant, the evolution of solar power generation’s use over time will be interesting to observe within the changing environment of the United States’ power needs.