Economic and Environmental Effect of Solar Energy Term Paper

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Solar Energy With Respect to Its Environmental and Economic Benefits

Solar energy is one of the most promising energy alternatives currently available to those individuals, businesses, and communities that are aiming to gather their power from a more sustainable source. Compared to traditional oil and gas, the benefits of solar power seem endless, and literally are in terms of availability. While oil, natural gas, and coal reserves all over the world are continuously shrinking at an alarming rate, cleaner alternatives like solar power continue to gain support within the global community as well as here domestically in the United States.

Solar power is not new, yet it has been relatively slow to gain speed within American favor and its development has continued to reinforce positive benefits within the environment and domestic economy. In fact, it was first demonstrated in real practice in 1839 by scientist Edmond Becquerel (Johansson & Burnham 1993). Solar power depends on its ability to convert real Solar Energy into usable power. Despite its simple source of energy, the designs of contemporary methods for harnessing such power are incredibly complex. According to research, "Like most semiconductor devices, they include a positive layer (on the bottom) and a negative layer (on the top) that create an electrical field inside the cell," (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). This separated space then traps solar energy and creates the capacity to harness the power of the sun in a usable form. Thus, "When a photon of light strikes a semiconductor, it releases electrons (see animation). The free electrons flow through the solar cell's bottom layer to a connecting wire as direct current (DC) electricity," (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). This provides cheap and relatively reliable power that can cover the requirements of both modern residential and business needs. One thing that has stopped many from getting into the solar energy craze is the initial upfront costs that are obviously more than traditional energy sources. In many cases, individual residences and public institutions have to work on a severely limited budget, thus harnessing them from turning to solar power as an alternative. Yet, "Corporations, however, are better endowed, more influential, more sure of their goals, more flexible, more effective, and better organized than any institution could be," (Scheer 2005:19). In fact, large corporations have the best ability to prove more sustainable in their practices by turning to solar power.

There are several different approaches to harnessing solar power. One of the oldest and most efficient is that of implementing monocrystalline solar panels to capture the sun's energy. Silicon crystals absorb solar power and then transmit energy to storage facilities. In monocrystalline panels, there is a single silicon crystal design. According to research, "Monocrystalline panels are made from a large, single silicon crystal and have a patchwork pattern," (Sun Run Inc. 2009). They are delicate and somewhat more expensive than their polycrystalline counterparts, they are still the more efficient out of the other panel styles. Although the capture more energy, they do tend to be more expensive. Research states that "Monocrystalline Silicon has a single and continuous crystal lattice structure with practically zero defects or impurities," (EcoGeneration Solutions 1999). The single surface of the silicon single allows more energy to transfer into usable power. With very little fragmentation within the crystal design, the panel puts out maximum efficiency in terms of power wattage. Studies have shown that "Conversion efficiencies range from 12 to 18%, the theoretical limit being about 23%" when using monocrystalline panels (Starr & Palz 1983:16). Yet, there is a cheaper alternative. Polycrystalline panels feature a series of smaller fragmented silicone crystals together in one panel. According to research, polycrystalline "panels are made of lots of tiny silicon crystals and have a geometric pattern," (Sun Run Inc. 2009). They are definitely the cheaper alternative, but can have some disadvantages when compared to their monocrystalline counterparts. The fragmentation can sometimes loose energy through the transmission process. Yet, they are still easily implemented in both commercial and residential settings (Johansson & Burnham 1993).

There have been various improvements over the years that have also increased solar power's efficiency in real practice. One of those is the use of metallization, or the "evaporation of a metal that is heated to above its melting point into a vacuum," (Johansson & Burnham 1993:344). This helps seal the cell walls and creates higher levels of performance, but at the disadvantage of increased costs. Chemicals have also been used to seal the crystals and also increase their efficiency. Research shows that "By sealing the cell surface with a layer of thermally grown oxide, a technique well-known from microelectronics, additional design flexibility became possible," (Johansson & Burnham 1993:342). Chemical treatments can also prove costly, and also dangerous in terms of their environmental impact during initial production. Surface texturizing is also a recent improvement that has increased efficiency of solar power. Lasers cut textures into the cells to improve their efficiency; "The fine fingers that are essential for high efficiency are defined using a laser to form narrow grooves deep into the cell surface," (Johansson & Burnham 1993:346). This has proved a very cost effective improvement based on its lacking of costly and dangerous chemical processes.

The implementation of solar power on a large scale would drastically change our impact on the natural environment as we know it today. Technology has a huge effect on our environment, and solar power is a prime example of how we can harness innovative technologies to provide a better and more sustainable world for future generations. Implementation of solar power is taking some of the most innovative ideas and placing them in practice to solve real world problems. Yet, even our most innovative technologies seem to rely somewhat on more traditional methods of producing power.

There are several disadvantages in terms of solar power and its impact on the environment, yet these pale in comparison to traditional power acquisition. First, traditional energy needed to create and install solar panels in businesses and residences around the United States. According to research, "Energy is required to manufacture and install solar components, and any fossil fuels used for this purpose will generate emissions," (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Part of this is catering to recent improvements which call for more dangerous chemicals in the pursuit of more efficient solar power technology. Emissions produced during manufacturing can then be seen as an environmental disadvantage. Additionally, some experiments in solar power have also actually contributed more to the growing emissions problems, rather than actually help as they are intended to. According to research, "for example, solar waters heaters increase the amount of hot water generated per unity of fossil energy invested by at least a factor of two compared to natural gas water heating and by at least a factor of eight compared to electric water heating," (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Moreover, solar plants on an industrial or commercial level need large plots of land to space out a plethora of panels. Thus, "the large amount of land required for utility-scale solar power plants -- approximately one square kilometer for every 2 -- 60 megawatts (MW) generated -- poses an additional problem, especially where wildlife protection is a concern," (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). This becomes a problem when trying to find alternative sources of energy which are drastically different in terms of their environmental impact.

Yet, it is clear that innovative minds at the heart of the solar energy movement are creating new ways around such problems. Better manufacturing of panels under stricter regulations helps ensures the most environmentally sound practices during solar panel production. This includes both national and international legislation and policy reform which restricts particular production behaviors from the top down. Better manufacturing practices in general will also benefit from such restrictions, and manufacturing as a whole could drastically reduce its environmental impact both worldwide and domestically. Currently, manufacturing on all levels is bound to the use of fossil fuels (Scheer 2005). Solar energy, although initially consuming some fossil fuels in earl development, will help manufacturing break free from its chains to oil and gas. This would help spread more sustainable production methods that would also decrease overall annual production costs in terms of power costs. Greater restrictions can also be help with the more efficient information dissemination. With more knowledge regarding the benefits of solar power, both environmentally and economically, more will turn to it as an alternative source for much needed power in both commercial and residential applications. To combat issues that would threaten large plots of land, architects and designers of many solar power facilities have turned towards favoring building small, rather than the build-it-big mentality of traditional energy resources. Many developers have turned towards small scale applications of solar power plants as a way to curb on needed land. Large scale applications tend to have limited results. This shows that "Because sunlight is dispersed, small-scale, disperse applications are a better match to the resource," (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010). Thus, smaller scale applications of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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