Perception of Photovoltaics
We all have recently been faced with the all-inclusive nudge to move to renewable energy. As climate change is receiving more and more attention so has our outdated way of producing energy for the world. For many of us, that nudge sends us stumbling towards solar energy. Solar energy seems to be the most realistic option out of the very few options there are for the individual. This paper is going to dive into the different types of solar energy, construction of solar panels and the marketing of solar panels. By covering those topics will we also cover a range of plenty more. For instance, we will cover the harmful effects of solar panel construction, government policies, and other alternatives. By the time that you are done indulging yourself in this paper you will have a better grasp on if solar panels are the right option for you.
In a time where Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize for a climate change movie, cars are being made to be more efficient, and degrading the environment is frowned upon, we need other options than fossil fuels. In California, many laws have been passed to help ensure that we have rights to use solar energy. The Solar Rights Act passed in 1978 says, “The Solar Rights Act sought to promote and encourage the widespread use of solar energy and to “"protect and facilitate adequate access to the sunlight which is necessary to operate solar energy systems."” (Solar Rights N.D) This all became possible through the fact that the law limited Homeowner Association's power over the installation of rooftop solar panels. From personal experience, Homeowner Associations can be very picky about many things. This law makes the transition to solar much more efficient. In addition to this law, the government of California is also offering subsidies to help offset the cost of expensive solar panels. Sometimes they can range from 25-30% of the total cost. This is mainly happening through the California Solar Initiative. However, something this good cannot come without some controversy. Many people who had solar panels installed before the California Solar Initiative think they should be entitled to some of these subsidies. California also offers other subsidy programs for very efficient solar panels and oftentimes these ‘older’ solar panels are outside of the efficiency range. With all of these incentives and subsidies that California is offering it seems that they think that solar is the way to go. We are now going to explore some other options for renewable energy that you can have fitted for your property.
Second to solar, wind energy has major upsides for renewable energy. Micro Hydro systems are also available and they operate much like a wind turbine, but the difference is that they capture the kinetic energy of water in order to spin a turbine to generate energy. The last way to fit your house for renewable energy use requires no installation of anything! Many companies offer a program, in which for a premium price you can elect to purchase only energy that has been produced in renewable ways. While this seems like an easy way to save the earth there have been many reports of fraud. Companies have been caught selling nonrenewable energy at the higher premium price. Wind energy is a very viable option but it is much more expensive than solar and you need some property. Micro hydro systems are difficult for an individual to install and get permits for. Solar is the best option from the outside looking in. It has the most potential and room for growth. Markets are slowly starting to open up for photovoltaics.
We hear a lot about how great solar is and how the only downside is that it is expensive. I am going to do my best to enlighten you that solar energy is not all that it is talked up to be. Have you ever seen a solar farm? They are massive and they make the land unusable for most anything else. When compared to a wind farm, a solar farm has no opportunity for agricultural or livestock use. For the most part, they minimize this problem by putting the solar farms on low-quality land. Most of the solar farms that I have noticed tend to be in very dry climates. Like any electrical manufacturer, solar thermal plants use water to cool the machinery. The water that is used to cool the machines will be drawn from the local pool. It is important that this is considered when deciding where to manufacture solar panels. So we now know that land and water are being used in the manufacturing process, but let's look deeper.
Dustin Mulvaney talks about the use of quartz in order to make silica. The mining of quartz is very inefficient and exposes the miners to many unnecessary risks, let alone the damage that is being done to the earth (Mulvaney, Solar Energy). With even more potential for environmental degradation, the refinement process could be better. In order to refine silica to polysilicon a very dangerous compound is used; silicon tetrachloride. When companies recycle silicon tetrachloride if can be somewhat efficient. However, that requires machinery that can cost more than ten million dollars. Smaller companies must dump the silicon tetrachloride. THE SAME SOURCE said,”If exposed to water—and that’s hard to prevent if it’s casually dumped—the silicon tetrachloride releases hydrochloric acid, acidifying the soil and emitting harmful fumes”. The fumes that are released are almost impossible to clean up.
If something is going to happen it will usually happen in places where they are the least prepared. For instance, due to the relaxed laws in China, a spill of hydrofluoric acid killed hundreds of animals. This resulted in the company's stock to dive by more than 40%. This is a very interesting conflict, on one hand, we have companies that are built upon being green, and on the other, we have companies that competing to be the biggest and best. As companies grow and compete it often comes with environmental concern being pushed out the door. If companies were to disregard the environmental side of things they would instantly be dead in the water. These companies are built on being green, and if they slipped up and were not true to their word their credentials on being green would be voided.
The average lifespan of a solar panel is 20-30 years (PV Recycling). So naturally, we are going to have to dispose of them somehow. We have not quite hit that point in the market where we are going to have to get the second generation of solar panels installed. Some of the earlier solar panels from the 1980s are still functioning fine. A time is coming where we will need to learn how to recycle a mass number of solar panels. SEIA’s recycling statement is as follows, “SEIA's PV Recycling Working Group has developed a national PV recycling program. This program will include specific benefits for members who utilize the services of SEIA Preferred Recycling Partners”. If we can learn how to efficiently recycle spent solar panels we might be onto something. Getting a good grasp on the recycling program is extremely important as the market for solar panels is expanding.
Solar energy is growing at an alarming pace! More than 260,000 Americans work in solar. The main factor that is driving this exponential increase in solar energy is the cost of solar panels is dropping as more and more people invest in photovoltaics. Even with the drop in the cost of the panels, much of the cost is considered “soft costs”. These soft costs include permitting, financing, and customer acquisition. They add up to be about 55% of the cost of a residential system (Solar Energy). This is just one of the reasons that selling people on solar panels is difficult. I am going to include an excerpt from a marketing guide about some of the reasons consumers would not want to invest in solar panels. ”Consumers report high up-front and out-of-pocket costs and long payback periods deter them from installing solar energy technology. The absence of solar technologies in the public’s eye and confusion about its performance and capabilities create concerns about the reliability of solar technology; it is not perceived as up to the task of powering our energy needs. The time consuming and complex nature of purchasing and installing solar energy systems discourages potential customers. The lengthy decision-making process and financial complexity of the solar sale often result in consumer inertia.” (Smart Solar) These seem to be the main reason that people would not want to invest in solar panels. I was also quite surprised to read that the CESA marketing manual-guided businesses away from touching on the ‘environmental’ ethic. Their reason was that many people already know that side and that is one of the reasons they are in your showroom. They suggested going the ‘value’ or ‘financial’ route. The manufacturers are aware of the main reasons that people might be wary of purchasing solar panels
So why would you purchase solar panels? Well with all of the governmental incentives, dropping costs and transitions to solar there are many financial reasons to make the switch. From a more ecocentric worldview, it is, important to note that solar energy, although not as clean as it is made out to be, seems to be the better option over coal and fossil fuels. Hopefully, the progress that has made will continue to keep moving forward as photovoltaics is a very new technology that still has an untapped potential.
When I talk about the untapped potential I am speaking the technological advances and the social advances. Solar energy has the ability to make huge strides socially. The portability of solar energy allows third world countries to generate power in order to help with the purification of water and keep hospitals running. That is one of the wonderful things about solar, you can set it up anywhere with very little infrastructure. This idea can be taken further by applying it to developing countries. When countries go through industrial revolutions it is all about being cheap and efficient and for all the ones in the past has been driven by fossil fuels. With so many countries on the brink of an industrial revolution, there is much upside to loaning money and manpower to help install solar. This could drive that country to remain clean and get them started on the right foot. The part that we seem to be having the most trouble with, in the USA, is the transition over to solar from fossil fuels. If we can help a country not have that hiccup there is no telling what could be.
The sun produces enough energy in one hour to power our economy for over a year (Brown, Earth Policy) It is no question that the sun provides us enough energy. The issue is if we can capture it in an efficient way. As time passes by we will continue to have big advancements in photovoltaics. There is no need to worry about the sun burning out either. Scientists estimate that that sun will ‘swallow’ the Earth before it ever gets close to burning out. People talk about solar energy like it is the answer right now. I think it can be the answer, however, I believe that it is still a long way off. We know one thing for sure, we have one earth and we need to protect it from ourselves. The best way to do that is to continue to invest in renewable energy and look into other options. The best solution is a mix of all of the renewable energies right now. We are in a “try before you buy” stage and we need to continue to test out new technologies. Social change is no easy feat but it has to happen for all change. Social change does not happen overnight, it takes years. We have been moving in the right direction by slowly weaning off of fossil fuel energy. We have seen a huge market start to open up for renewable energies and within the energies, photovoltaics has the most potential even though it is a ways off from being truly renewable.
Brown / Earth Policy Institute, Lester R. “Sunlight Striking Earth's Surface in Just One Hour Delivers Enough Energy to Power the World Economy for an Entire Year.” Alternet, www.alternet.org/environment/sunlight-striking-earths-surface-just-one-hour-delivers-enough-energy-power-world.
Mulvaney, Dustin . “Solar Energy Isn’t Always as Green as You Think.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News, 13 Nov. 2014,
“PV Recycling.” SEIA, www.seia.org/initiatives/pv-recycling.
“Solar Energy in the United States.” Department of Energy, energy.gov/eere/solarpoweringamerica/solar-energy-united-states.
“Solar Rights: Access to the Sun for Solar Systems.” Rights to the Sun - Go Solar California, www.gosolarcalifornia.ca.gov/solar_basics/rights.php.
“Smart Solar Marketing Strategies .” Cesa.org, Aug. 2009.