Apr 5, 2011 Sustainable Energy
Since I’m posting on nuclear power, I think it makes sense to post about the alternatives. The big reason there’s such a push for nuclear power is that too many people think the less polluting alternatives aren’t viable. I think they are, although I recognize that it’s going to take a long time before they’re in sufficiently common use.
Solar power in particular has improved in recent years. Panels with a lower cost per watt have been developed, as low as $1 per watt, although they’re not yet in common use. There are even solar roof shingles, so you don’t have to have to put up separate panels.
It’s not all about putting solar panels on houses, for example. Back in the 1980s there was some interesting work on a solar power tower that could generate electricity even at night and on cloudy days.
More big box businesses have realized that solar power is affordable enough for them to put panels up on their roofs – a great use for the space, I think. Solar power has come a long way to be seen as a reasonable investment for businesses to make for powering their stores.
Can Solar Power Take You Off the Grid?
Many people see solar power as a way to get off the grid. It’s a lovely goal, but not absolutely necessary. You may prefer to remain connected so that when you aren’t generating enough power on your panels, you still get electricity from the grid.
You can, of course, have your panels charge batteries so that you don’t need to be connected to the grid. It’s an added expense to the system, but not impossible, and is a great choice if you’re not close enough to be easily connected to the grid anyhow.
But Doesn’t Solar Power Need Subsidies to Be Economically Viable?
Many people say that solar power isn’t viable because it takes subsidies from the government to make it worth anyone’s while. That’s close enough to true, but it’s not the whole picture. Nuclear power gets subsidies. Oil companies get subsidies. Why is it so unreasonable for solar and other renewable energy sources to get subsidies as well?
Consider also that in California there are companies right now willing to install solar power systems on homes for free, and then charge the homeowners for the the electricity generated. The idea is that the homeowner will get a steady rate even if electricity prices go up (or down, that’s the gamble, unlikely as down may seem). These companies aren’t doing that out of the goodness of their hearts. They expect to make a profit while doing something good for the environment.
What About the Environmental Impact of Solar Panel Materials?
There is absolutely an environmental impact to the manufacture and disposal of solar panels. Just as with any other material, we have to mine for many of the supplies. We mine for coal, pump oil from underground, and mine for uranium too.
The wonderful part about solar panels is that significant parts of the panels can be recycled. They won’t just end up in the landfill, or have to be stored safely away for generations. They can be taken apart and made into new things.
How Long Until Solar Power Is More Common?
There’s the big question. What’s it going to take for solar power to become more commonly used, so that more people can see that it is viable?
I can’t say exactly, but I believe the time is coming. Cleco Company in Louisiana is testing solar panels there now, as well as other renewable energy technologies. The U.S. Government has a Solar Energy Technologies Program which focuses on developing solar technologies. The viability of solar power is being reviewed in Pennsylvania (PDF) as well.
Overall, progress is being made, and solar power is becoming steadily more practical. If you have the budget and a place to install solar panels, it’s worth researching to see what benefit you can get in your area.