Solar power is the biggest source of new energy in the U.S. as prices drop and industry gets on board.
- Solar panel prices are dropping 10% a year as their power-generating efficiency improves at the same time
- Home buyers are willing to pay more for homes equipped with rooftop solar
- Industry accounts for the most use of new solar power via “utility-scale” installations
Solar power, which converts energy from sunlight, currently only accounts for 0.2% of U.S. energy – but could generate 20% be changing, soon.
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Where is solar energy used?
Compared to coal, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear, which account for 42%, 21%, 15% and 12% of the world’s energy, respectively, solar energy only accounts for a fraction at 0.5%. Even so, this figure is a dramatic increase from just a decade ago.
In 2003, the world only collectively produced 2 Terawatt-hours in solar energy; today it is over 93 TWh.
Germany has been leading the way since 2005, having logged a record of 5.1 TWh on its own in July of 2013, producing 22 gigawatts in solar electricity per hour – equal to 20 nuclear plants at full capacity.
But the U.S. and other countries are catching up to even Germany.
China actually set the world record for solar installations in 2013, according to the Guardian, with an estimate of 12 GW installations in one year. They also are a major exporter of solar panels, with their low-cost panels supplying half the world’s solar needs.
Meanwhile, the United States became the fourth country to surpass 10 GW in 2013. It has seen a 50% growth since 2007 and is forecasted to grow an additional 80% by 2014, green technology website Clean Technica says.
How does it work, and what is its potential?
Solar power is used in two ways, according to the Center for Climate and Environmental Solutions. The first is called solar photovoltaics (PV), which use semiconductor materials to convert sunlight into energy, and concentrating solar power (CSP), which concentrates sunlight on fluid to produce energy via steam.
Advantages of this type of energy shine aplenty, including:
Solar power is clean, and creates energy without contributing to global warming.
Solar power saves society money. According to data from CostofSolar.com, people with solar panels save an average of $20,000 a year.
Solar panel “fuel” (sunlight) is unlimited, reliable, and not subject to monetization or monopolization like other energy sources. We can always depend on the sun to shine, rely on its timing, and have unlimited access.
Solar power creates jobs. According to the National Solar Job Census of 2012, the U.S. solar industry employed nearly 120,000 Americans, and will employ hundreds and thousands more at its current growth rate. Solar PV, specifically, has been found to employ per megawatt of capacity more than any other energy technology.
Solar power may seem perfect, but like anything else it has downsides and criticisms. Disadvantages include the fact that solar energy can only work during times of sunlight unless stored (plants use salts to do this through CSP, individuals use battery banks), can burden rooftop architecture, and can be an expensive investment up front.
Other pitfalls include the environmental cost of manufacturing panels, which includes the mining of raw minerals, toxic chemical treating, and manufacturing by processes that use energy, create air pollution, and contribute to greenhouse emissions.
Solar power plants have also been criticized for killing birds, according to the Wall Street Journal, calling California’s new solar plant (which runs off the CSP model) “The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project,” noting that dozens of birds were found dead during its construction.
Regardless, we are only at the beginning of tapping into the powers of the sun, and solar energy is projected to nearly double in the next two years, according to the Energy Collective.
The Germany Advisory Council for Global Change even predict that by the end of this century solar power will account for 60% of global energy production.
The sky is the limit – literally.
Image courtesy of Michael Betke via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.