From the federal government to your own neighborhood, “renewable energy” is an increasingly popular topic. You’ll drive by fields of wind turbines or solar panels on residential roofs. Renewable energy is defined as “energy from a source that is not depleted when used.” It’s a constantly replenished source of power, including solar power from the sun. Read on to see how solar energy works and how it could impact your electricity bill.
HOW DOES SOLAR ENERGY WORK?
Solar energy is power generated by harnessing the radiation given off by the sun that is strong enough to make it to the Earth. As the sun’s warmth and light come down through the atmosphere, those rays can then be converted into electrical or thermal energy. The most common, easily-identifiable method of capturing solar energy is through the use of solar panels on the roofs of homes or commercial buildings. Photovoltaic cells work as photons, also known as light particles, strike them. This knocks electrons free from their atoms and they are then forced into a single direction, which creates an electrical current and generates the flow of electricity, according to LiveScience.
Can solar panels really help save money on the electric bill?
Although solar panels are a popular way to harness solar energy, installing them on your home may not necessarily equate to savings. While homeowners can earn tax credits from federal, state and even some local governments to help make the cost of installing solar panels more affordable, it might take years for those credits to cover the cost of the panels.
Once installed, areas with an average amount of sunlight can generally cut their monthly bill in half. But, with a price tag of $15,000 for the purchase and installation of an average residential system, it could take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to make back the money spent, according to NerdWallet. This may act as a deterrent for some, especially for those who are not planning to remain in the same home for the length of time required to recoup the initial financial investment. If, however, a home is going to be kept within the family, installing solar panels will allow savings to pass on to future generations.
How does solar power impact the environment?
Once created and installed, solar panels produce no air or water pollution and further benefit the environment by avoiding potential negative impacts from traditional energy sources. Though these environmental benefits do seem to justify their use, that doesn’t mean the entire life cycle of solar energy, including manufacturing and transportation, is without environmental concern.
Three main areas of concern for solar power include its impact on land, water and potential waste materials.
With the popularity of solar energy growing, so are the number of large-scale solar operations. These facilities exist on massive lots of land and include hundreds to thousands of solar panels. Some scientists worry that these facilities are contributing to land degradation and habitat loss. Additionally, solar energy facilities fail to offer opportunities to maximize land use, as is the case with other renewable sources of energy. This can be seen in the case of wind facilities, which can often be used on land that is also meant for cultivation. Although these risks do exist, they can be managed by using low-quality land for solar facilities, such as abandoned mines or transportation corridors for solar fields, rather than fertile farmland.
Water use is another potential environmental issue with solar energy during the process of manufacturing panels. Additionally, concentrating solar thermal plants are another kind of facility that create solar energy, though this technology differs from the panels commonly seen on homes. Part of generating electricity requires water to cool the power plant. Though the process of cooling may differ from facility to facility, often it is the methods that prioritize saving water that are the most costly, prompting plants to refrain from investing in them. Another downside for water conservation is the fact that the sunniest areas in the country are also some of the driest areas in the nation, adding to water loss. Solar energy advocates will have to weigh the tradeoffs of water use when planning new facilities.
Solar Panel Waste
The production of solar panels generates about 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants, according to reports cited by Interesting Engineering. While the nature of the waste is different, the sheer amount is significant. Solar panels are mostly made from silicon and contain silver, copper, tin, silicon, aluminum, glass and several polymers. With a lifespan of 20 to 30 years, solar panels need to be recycled after losing their effectiveness, but the U.S. has not created a comprehensive, affordable solution for doing so.
One article, Solar Panel Waste: A Disposal Problem, further explains: “While disposal of solar panels has taken place in regular landfills, it is not recommended because the modules can break and toxic materials can leach into the soil, causing problems with drinking water. Solar panels can be recycled but [currently] the cost of recycling is generally more than the economic value of the material recovered.”
What are some limitations of solar energy?
Beyond the environmental risks of creating and using solar energy, several additional limitations impact its effectiveness as a power source. Because solar panels rely on sunlight to create energy and the amount that homes or businesses are exposed to varies over time, the power generated by panels will vary as well. This is affected by the time of day, the season, and the region. In the event of cloudiness or inclement weather conditions, it is still possible for panels to absorb sunlight, though it will be less on a cloudy day. Using multiple panels is also the most effective method for producing energy from solar panels, while relying on just a select few reduces the extent to which sunlight can be taken in.
How popular is solar energy?
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing forms of energy in the market today. In the last decade, solar has seen an average annual growth of 33% in the U.S. . In 2021, solar power made up nearly 46% of the new electricity-generating capacity in the U.S. energy market. Although solar energy is rapidly gaining popularity, only about 3% of all electricity in the United States is generated through solar power. In fact, solar power ranks as the fifth most popular out of six renewable energy sources, followed only by geothermal power. Globally, other countries are also beginning to adopt solar energy, resulting in billions being spent worldwide in order to expand into renewable sources of energy.
The future of how we power our homes and businesses includes understanding solar power as a renewable energy source and its effectiveness as a supplement to traditional power generation.
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