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From The Editors Science

Solar Power is Finally Being Hailed as the Energy Source of the Future

The continued use of fossil fuel including oil, gas, and coal to meet our energy requirements is expensive, ever-depleting, and labor extensive with damaging effect on the environment and ecosystem we depend on for our very existence.

It is the main factor, if not the only, that causes air pollution, the greenhouse effect, rising sea levels, climatic changes – global warming in general – a growing concern for environmentalists and scientists the world over.

Although humans have been harnessing the Sun’s energy or solar energy since time immemorial, it is now, in this century, and to some extent the latter part of last century, that a range of technologies for harnessing this freely renewable source of power have been developed and is ever evolving.

The Earth intercepts about 173,000 terawatts of solar power which is easily 10,000 times more energy than what the entire population of the planet consumes.

So, is there a chance that some day we could be totally reliant on solar energy? In order to address that question we first need to examine how solar panels convert solar energy into electrical energy.

Solar panels are made up of small units called solar cells. The most common solar cells are made from silicon, a semiconductor that is one of the most plentiful elements on our planet.

In a solar cell, crystalline silicon is sandwiched between conductive layers. Each silicon Adam is connected to its neighbors by four strong bonds which keep the electrons in place so no current can flow.

A silicon solar cell typically involves two different layers of silicon, the “N” type silicon and the “P” type silicon. While the “N” type silicon has extra electrons the “P” type has extra spaces for electrons called holes.

Where the two types of silicon meet they form a “PN” junction. Electrons move across the “PN” junction leaving one side positively charged while creating the negative charge on the other.

One can visualize light as the flow of minute particles called photons emanating from the Sun. A photon striking the silicon cell with enough energy can dislodge an electron from its bond leaving a hole.

This enables the negatively charged electron and location of the positively charged hole to move around freely.

However, they can only move one way because of the electric field at the “PN” junction. Hence, the electron moves to the “N” side and the hole to the “P” side.

Thin metal fingers at the top of the cell collect the moving electrons and it is from here that the electrons flow through an external circuit to complete some electrical work like powering a light bulb, for example, before coming back through the conductive aluminum sheet on the back of the solar cell to where it started from.

The output capacity of each silicon cell is merely half a volt; however, you can string them together to get more power. While 12 photovoltaic cells are sufficient to charge a mobile phone, many would be required to power an entire house, for instance.

What is remarkable about solar cells is that they can last for decades as the only moving parts in the cell are the electrons which, in any case, go back to where they start from. There is nothing in a solar cell that goes through any wear and tear.

So, why have we not yet become 100 percent reliant on solar power? It must be mentioned that there are many political factors in play. Also, vested interests and non-renewable energy businesses are continuously lobbying to maintain status quo. They make every attempt to ensure that their applecart is not upset.

The Future of Renewable Energy Technology – Solar Power
The Future of Renewable Energy Technology – Solar Power

However, for the time being, let’s concentrate on the physical and logistical hurdles in the way of total reliability on solar energy. For one, solar energy is unevenly distributed across the planet with some parts being sunnier than others. Also, it is not very consistent in that less solar energy is available at night or under overcast conditions.

Therefore, to achieve complete reliance, effective and efficient storage of energy has to be ensured in order to get solar power from sunny areas to the not-so-sunny ones.

Another challenge is the efficiency of a cell itself as sometimes sunlight is reflected instead of absorbed. Also, a dislodged electron may well fall back into the hole before going through the circuit resulting in the loss of that photon’s energy.

The most efficient solar cell can only convert about 46% of available sunlight to electricity while most commercial systems are only 15-20 percent efficient.

However, in spite of the limitations and drawbacks, the existing solar technology in the world today is good enough to meet the power demands of the entire planet.

To achieve complete reliance on this renewable source, proper funding for developing the necessary infrastructure and a lot of space would be required. It is estimated that it would take hundreds of thousands of square miles which may seem to be a lot of space but don’t forget that the Sahara desert alone is more than 3 million square miles of open space with more than enough sunlight.

As time progresses solar cells keep getting better, cheaper and are competing with electricity from the grid. Furthermore, innovations like floating solar farms may change the entire field of play thereby solving space problems on land, if any.

It is estimated that in developing countries over a billion people don’t have access to a reliable electric grid. Now, most of these countries receive ample sunlight making solar energy a much cheaper and safer option in these places than the available non-renewable alternatives like kerosene.

Here are some important points to note in regards to solar power and its benefits. It might encourage you to make the switch from conventional to renewable energy sooner rather than later.

ENERGY ECONOMY
Fixed or eliminated utility costs
Immunity from fluctuating energy economy
Predictable energy spending for decades

INCREASED PROPERTY VALUE
Tax credits available
Up to 30% increase in property value
Higher resale value

ENVIRONMENT FRIENDLY
No Carbon Emissions
Positive environmental impact
Limitless Energy Supply

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From The Editors Science

Facts and Myths of Solar Energy and Solar Panels

Before we delve into the myths surrounding solar energy and solar panels, it is imperative that we first understand the concept of solar energy, the ways it can be harnessed, how it can contribute towards checking the increasingly deteriorating environment and benefit mankind as a whole.

Solar Energy:

Solar energy in itself is nothing but the radiant light and heat that the come from the Sun. Now, this energy emanating from the Sun, at any given time, is all around our planet because half the earth’s surface is facing the Sun at all times, anyways.

Solar Energy, therefore, has existed since the very beginning of time – from the time the Sun and the Earth have been in existence. It is right here on our planet available for us. It is left to us whether we harness this readily available energy all around us or let it go to waste and continue using the more expensive and harmful ways of generating energy for our daily needs; our existence, in fact.

The continuing use of fossil fuel: oil, gas, and coal to meet our power and electricity needs, is not only more expensive to procure, ever depleting, and labor extensive, it has also been damaging the real environment and the ecosystem we depend on for our survival. It is the major contributor to air pollution, the greenhouse effect, rising sea levels, climatic changes – global warming in general – a growing concern for environmentalists and scientists the world over.

Although humans have been harnessing the Sun’s energy or solar energy since time immemorial, it is now, in this century, and to some extent the latter part of last century, that a range of technologies for harnessing this freely renewable source of power have developed and is ever evolving.

Solar Power:

Solar Power, simply put, is converting the solar energy that we have just spoken about, into electricity using different technologies to harness it and use it for electricity and power generation.

The purpose is not to confuse with too many technicalities but to have a generic idea of the technologies involved in the generation of solar power.

One of two basic methodologies to convert the Sun’s light into electricity is the photovoltaic method (PV). A photovoltaic cell is a device that has the capacity to convert sunlight into electric current using the photovoltaic effect. To put it differently, this is a direct conversion of sunlight into electricity using photovoltaic cells – basically, solar panels, explained later in a little more detail.

The other is the indirect method using concentrated solar energy. This technology involves the use of lenses or mirrors of different shapes and dimensions and tracking systems – to redirect a large area of sunlight into a concentrated beam of powerful light. The heat from the beam turns the steam-driven turbines and electricity is generated; hence, the indirect method.

Solar Panel:

Again, let’s try and be as simple about this as possible. A modern Solar Panel is a specially designed panel; a packaged panel that has the capacity to absorb the Sun’s light and convert it into power for our electric and heating requirements.

A typical modern solar panel is the photovoltaic module – an assembly of 6X10 photovoltaic solar cells. It is the photovoltaic array of a PV system that generates and supplies electricity to meet our residential and commercial needs.

Myths:

Despite the advancements made in the area of Solar Power generation and supply, myths still exist among some people – one may wonder why, with all that have already been written and said about, by experts in the field.

The most common ones that we still get to her about and the reality behind it are listed below:

* Solar Panels are not suitable for cold climates – Says who? As a matter of fact most solar panels work better in cold climatic conditions; of course, as long as it’s sunny. The cold acts as a catalyst in increasing the conductivity of electricity – it makes the flow faster and more efficient.

It can be a slight disadvantage in hotter regions because the panels get heated up faster thereby resulting in decreased efficiency. Less power will be generated for the same amount of light received in colder conditions.

However, solar energy still remains a better option than the nonrenewable ones that have been detrimental to humans in many respects especially the environment.

* I should wait before I invest in Solar Power as the technology may improve in the future – This is another myth that has been doing the rounds for some time now. While technology is constantly evolving and growing, the existing ones are advanced enough to nip this myth in the bud.

* A Tracking System is required to follow the angle of the Sun making the installation costlier – When companies that specialize in solar panels install a system, they position the panels in ways that maximize exposure of the panels to sunlight, thereby cutting off the need to install a tracking system.

However, in some of the latest Solar Panels, tracking systems are integrated to adjust the position of the panel as the Sun moves all through the day. This additional expense is not worth it as the gain in efficiency is hardly proportionate to the increase in cost.

* Solar Panels require constant maintenance – On the contrary, solar arrays are designed to be durable with minimal maintenance requirements. There are companies that offer lifetime warranties for their systems and others recommend, or may even include, annual maintenance checks in a package deal.

* Damage to roofs – This is again a misconception in that Solar Panels are installed by trained professionals who are experts in installing these panels irrespective of the roof types – roofs of any pitch or angle – without damaging the roof. On the contrary, solar panels can potentially extend the life of the roof by protecting it from the elements.

Moreover, these professionals generally leave a gap between the roof and these lightweight panels at the time of installation for improved air circulation. The weight of the panels would more or less be the same as another tier of shingles on the roof.

* Solar panels are not designed for snowy or cloudy conditions – It is true that the quantum of power can reduce, but Solar Panels can still work efficiently enough under these circumstances. In areas prone to snowfalls, the panels are angled in ways so that snow slides off the surface of the panels not allowing accumulation of excess snow.

Under rainy conditions, the rainwater helps in clearing debris from the panels adding to the efficiency and performance. While Germany gets almost half the amount of sunlight compared to the hottest city in the United States, the country possesses one of the “most successful solar initiatives” in the world.

There are many other myths about solar panels that are not even worth taking into consideration as with knowledge and more information being provided by manufacturers and installers, they are changing, and there is definitely an increased awareness among people about solar energy and its advantages.

Related article on employability in the Renewable Energy sector:

Renewable Energy Offers More Employment Than Traditional Energy

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From The Editors Science

Renewable Energy Offers More Employment Than Traditional Energy

In May 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released the “Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016” report at its 11th Annual Council Meeting held in Abu-Dhabi. The meeting witnessed the highest number of countries ever represented in an IRENA meeting – there were 300 high-level government officials, representing 96 countries, present at the council meeting.

Kenred Dorsett, Minister of the Environment and Housing of the Bahamas was elected to Chair the meeting, and he opened with the following remarks:

“IRENA as a global organization has made tremendous contributions to the advancement of renewable energy, notwithstanding its relatively short history. The Bahamas has relied heavily on IRENA to chart its renewable energy future. We look forward to the deliberations over the next few days as countries come together to guide the work of the Agency, and are humbled to be elected Chair for this important meeting.”

Soon after the Chair election IRENA’s Director-General Adnan Z. Amin, released the Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016 report.

“A lot has happened since IRENA’s establishment five years ago,” said the IRENA Director General. “We are implementing our new work program with determination and confidence that the current biennium holds great promise for accelerating the global uptake of renewable energy. We are proud of our achievements to date and energised by the unwavering support of our Members.”

In the Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016 report IRENA estimated that Renewable Energy (Solar and Wind Power) provided employment to 8.1 million people on an international level in 2015 indicating a 5% increase from the previous year’s statistics – and the number did not include jobs in the large hydro-electricity sector for which a second global estimation was carried out showing an estimated 1.3 million direct jobs in that particular sector.

According to the IRENA report, although growth in global employment showed a downward trend as a whole that year, the aggregate number of jobs in the Renewable Energy sector combining Solar and Wind Energy indicated an increase. The case was the opposite in the conventional energy sector including oil, gas, and coal.

China, Brazil, the United States, India, Japan and Germany witnessed the highest number of Renewable Energy jobs according to the IRENA estimation report released in May 2016.

The IRENA report is an indication that Renewable Energy Sector has a better potential of job creation than the conventional energy sector, oil gas and coal combined.

A more recent report released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) sort of verifies the earlier report by IRENA in that the solar energy sector witnessed more employment in the United States as compared to the conventional energy sector.

The U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) January 2017, indicates that the growth in employment numbers in the solar energy sector has been proportionally higher than in the conventional power generation sector involving oil, gas, and coal. According to the USEER this is mainly due to the development witnessed in the solar generation infrastructure, thereby, increasing the solar generation capacity.

Technicians working on solar panels.
Technicians working on solar panels.

“Proportionally, solar employment accounts for the largest share of workers in the Electric Power Generation sector,” says part of the 84 page PDF report (USEER). “This is largely due to the construction related to the significant buildout of new solar generation capacity.”

Under the Electric Power Generation section the report says that the solar energy technologies provided 374,000 jobs accounting for 43% of the Electric Power Generation workforce.

The fossil fuel power generation sector, on the other hand, shows 187,117 workers accounting for 22% of the Power Generation workforce involving oil, gas, and coal power technologies.

According to the findings of the USEER, the Traditional Energy and the Energy Efficiency sectors employ about 6.4 million people within the United States which increased by 5% in 2016 “adding over 300,000 net new jobs, roughly 14% of all those created in the country.”

The contribution of the Traditional Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Motor Vehicle sectors have shown significant gains in the U.S. economy and represent 6% of all jobs across the United States according to the Conclusion section of the U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER), January 2017.

The above findings points towards a higher employability potential in the Renewable Energy sector as compared to the Conventional Energy sector. It is contrary to the incoming administration’s program of focussing more on the Conventional Energy sector according to President-elect Trump’s campaign policy in this regard.

One must remember that we are not only referring to the job creation potential of the Renewable Energy Sector but also the contribution it will make toward a greener environment and reduction in air pollution if given the proper government backing it needs.

In these times of global warming and ocean levels rising and the greenhouse effect being talked about by environmentalists all over, Renewable Energy is the way to go, one can safely presume.