Monday, March 23, 2015

Solar Energy Comes of Age in the U.S.

Barely ten years ago, the idea of solar power was still mostly mocked as the limited energy purview of assorted "tree hugger", arugala-munching  elites, but too expensive for the average person.  Even the arugala-munching  elites mainly used it for water heating. The expansion to utility power companies and multi-purpose uses had not yet occurred. Basically, thin -film photovoltaics (PV) had not yet emerged. Silicon had been the element of choice for solar panels, which was more efficient but expensive and difficult to mass -produce. Now that's changed.

Favorable economics for the PV thin-film panels have led to an explosion in solar energy potential most Americans are only dimly aware of. For example, most don't know that on February 9th a utility -scale solar power plant (run by "Desert Sunlight") was officially dedicated.

This occurred on 3,800 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management - and most noteworthy - is now the 6th operational plant on federal property. (The gov't operates 250 million acres, mostly in the sunny, arid West, perfect for solar panels.)

The problem of utility scale solar plants poses an interesting conundrum. They need to be somewhere with year round sunlight, in a space vast enough to contain hundreds of thousands of solar modules, but close enough to civilization to easily connect to the grid.  Fortuitously, Desert Sunlights plant meets all the criteria, situated just outside Desert Center - a tiny town southeast of Joshua Tree National Park.

The site features millions of 1.2m by 0.6m panels each covered by a thin film of glass that absorbs sunlight and captures elections creating an electric current that flows into wires in the rear of each module. This represents d.c. (direct current) power which is then converted into a.c. by inverters. The converted power is then transferred to the electrical grid via a nearby substation. Each panel generates 90 to 100 watts,

Other facts of the burgeoning solar power industry with which you may be unaware:

- Desert Sunlight's solar plant has 8 million solar panels in all.

- About 160,000 homes are solar-powered by Desert Sunlight

- Fifty two utility scale renewable energy projects have been approved since 2009, including 29 solar plants.

- Solar power is now a $15 billion a year business in the U.S., employing more people than coal mining

- In 2014 alone, solar energy accounted for 36 percent of the country's new (installed) energy capacity

- First Solar has plans to build a 750 MW plant in Riverside, CA, even bigger than Desert Sunlight's.

All these ought to give Americans reason to hope that we've turned the corner on solar energy and perhaps very soon we might be able to pull back a bit on fossil fuels, including fracked oil and natural gas. In any case we have to, there's no issue on it.

Bill McKibben's 2, 795 gigatons is perhaps the scariest number most people never heard of- but Americans need to drill into their craniums. . It represents the total stored reserves of carbon held by coal, gas and oil companies. It was first highlighted and brought to global attention by the Carbon Tracker Initiative - a group of London financial analysts and environmentalists.  It is what the fossil fuel industry plans to exploit in the future by its whole spectrum of methods, whether deep sea drilling, oil shale fracking or natural gas fracking.

It is, in other words, five times more carbon than will already blow a gasket in our world and send it toward runaway greenhouse. It is a number we cannot afford to realize if we want to pass this planet on in any form to future generations.

And solar power may be the key to helping us avoid reaching it!

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