If solar is so absolutely great, and we’re hurtling towards a climate catastrophe, why does it only power about 2% of the world? If it’s the panacea to our problems, why aren’t solar panels adorning rooftops the world over? What are the causes behind the problems with solar energy that we face?
To answer such questions, we at UnderstandSolar have dug into the facts and present the fruits of our labor below – an unfortunate tale of G20 hypocrisy, the Concorde fallacy (find out what this is later), and the sobering fact that we still need fossil fuels to power our planet (at least for now).
Cartoons can be a great way to find the humor in something: news highlights, politics, or to educate (and usually, some combination of the three). A lot can be said with few words – about solar politics, finances, and safety. Take a look at a solar panel cartoon or three that we found below!
Do you want to power your home using renewable energy, but can’t install rooftop solar? Perhaps you have a shaded roof, live in a condo, or are not a property owner, but want your electricity fossil-fuel free. In many locations, there is a great solution – community solar, or “rooftop solar, without the rooftops.”
Community solar – also called a community solar project, solar garden, or shared renewable energy plant – describes solar energy used by multiple households sourced by a shared solar plant. Community solar projects exist in half of US states, so it may be in your area. If not, just keep an eye out – according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the community solar market should continue to boom; more community solar was installed in one-quarter of 2016 than the entire year of 2015.
Solar panels come in many varieties, and there are different types of panels for every occasion. Since going solar is a major investment in your home, it’s good to be in-the-know before you invest. And that’s where we come in.
In recent years we have seen radical improvements in the underlying technology of solar panels and although you are familiar with the traditional-style solar panels in pictures and on rooftops, thin film solar panels are now making their way into the mainstream. They are called ‘thin film’ because they are able to be produced in such a way that allows them to be flexible and coat materials other than the standard wafer boards. This allows for many more applications for solar power and can allow them to blend more seamlessly into your home’s aesthetics.
The most obvious difference between the traditional silicon wafer solar panel and newer thin film varieties is the thickness. There are also currently gaps in solar capture efficiencies between first-generation silicon-based wafers and newer, second-generation methods that use different compounds. This comes down to the materials being used in the panels themselves.
Traditional panels often use crystalline silicon (c-Si) in their manufacture. This process has been around for years and has established itself to be reliable. It should be mentioned that although c-Si is considered to have a high-efficiency rate in terms of energy production from installed systems, it is actually a relatively poor absorber of light. This means that the cells must be fairly thick and rigid in order to produce effectively.
Related: Comparing Solar Panel Types
In contrast, thin film technologies employ different elements that allow the cells to be up to 350 times thinner than the traditional wafer. This material can then be layered over coated glass, metal, or plastic to create a solar cell, and allows for many different types of materials and objects to produce energy.
There are two main goals for thin film solar cells today: to have the flexibility to attach it to a larger variety of building materials and to eventually achieve the same or higher efficiency than traditional silicon-based methods. All of these methods below offer some differences in pros and cons compared to the traditional-style panels. Their names usually derives from the type of material that is used for its semiconductor. Let’s take a look at four and see how the different technologies compare:
a-Si photovoltaic cell structure. Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov
Amorphous Silicon is the oldest and most mature type of thin film to produce solar power. This is likely because silicon was already being used in its crystalline form to produce the more traditional panels and silicon’s electrical properties were well understood.
CdTe photovoltaic cell structure. Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov
Solar technology based on cadmium telluride is now the second most popular PV technology in the world, sitting at around 5%. This is thanks to the fact that manufacturing of this process is cheaper and quicker than comparable silicon-based methods and recent leaps in efficiency have prompted more mainstream adoption.
CIGS photovoltaic cell structure. Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov
This type of solar cell is another popular type of semiconductor used to create thin film applications. The CIGS method is currently more popular in Europe and Japan, but there are manufacturers all over the world making use of this technique to take advantage of its environmentally safe materials and peak efficiency potential.
CZTS photovoltaic cell structure. Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov
In an ongoing effort to find solar technology that is both environmentally friendly as well as manufactured using abundant materials, the CZTS method was discovered. This method is very similar to CIGS in terms of properties and methods of fabrication, but its efficiency is still very low.
We trust this information has helped shed light on what exactly are thin film solar panels and how they are shaping the current landscape of solar energy production.
As these technologies mature, they will make their way into competitive products available for purchase. Already there are alternative methods of solar production, such as solar roof tiles, that allow customers to have a more aesthetically pleasing look while still saving money on their energy bills. Watch this space to see what innovative and new trends will be developed.
Photos courtesy of NREL.gov
In 2015, the United States used about 3,724,500 million kWh of electricity.
Most of us don’t have enough context to realize how big this number actually is, so here are some facts: First off, the US is the 2nd biggest user of electricity in the world (just behind Canada). Secondly, think about what exactly this number includes: all the electricity used in millions of homes across the US for air conditioning, lights, refrigerators, stoves, hot water, and all our devices, as well as factories, office buildings, data centers, agricultural applications, government offices, recreation centers, football fields, streetlights, and about a billion other things we don’t even think about on a daily basis.
With so much electricity being used and created every day, as a country we need to constantly assess if all this electricity is being created in the most responsible way, both monetarily and environmentally.Continue reading
But this is far from the case for third-world countries.
Even if you’re only researching the theoretical principles of solar energy, it’s hard not to come across an ad shouting Solar Panels for Sale! when scouring the Internet, along with statistics and facts on how much solar energy can save you in the long run.
For instance, pulling up directories that list solar companies in each U.S. state is as easy as saying 1-2-3. Americans are offered tax reduction incentives, on top of getting closer to their goal of saving money and slashing their electricity bills.
To boot, even the environmentally conscious individual can feel good about purchasing and installing solar panels, knowing he is contributing, even minimally, to the reduction of carbon dioxide emission into the atmosphere.
Solar has a useful life of half a century, and is such a new industry that we’ve yet to see much end-of-life recycling, but it is a responsibility that must be addressed as time goes on.
The very few first solar panels were manufactured in the 1970s, and for the most part, these very early solar pioneers have not yet dismantled their old solar arrays that are still producing after 45 years.
According to a peer-reviewed paper just published at Nature Climate Change; “Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on U.S. CO2 emissions” – the cheapest way to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions from generating electricity by 2030, would be a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) grid connecting America’s prime renewable resources to 256 electricity markets.