By Caitlin Vandewater
It’s often been said that without the sun, life as we know it would not be possible. It provides us with light, heat and a way to track time. The sun has been a symbol of life and vitality for centuries now, and in the next decade, it may take on another important role as energy provider.
Currently, there is an intense focus on trying to narrow down or change where the U.S. draws its electrical power from. Commercials for natural gas, coal and other nonrenewable energy sources often plague the sidebars of our favorite websites or fill the coveted time slots in between segments of our favorite TV shows. Debates about hydraulic fracturing—which is a process that uses a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals to extract greater quantities of oil and gas from rocks —and other controversial ways of obtaining energy sources are constantly bouncing through state and national government chambers. As if the U.S. energy bill was not already important, the upcoming presidential election is sure to escalate the importance of where and how the nation gets its energy, as well as force citizens to reconsider how they power their homes and gadgets.
According to the U.S. Energy Administration (EIA) in 2011, renewable energy accounted for 13 percent of electricity generated in the U.S. Out of that 13 percent, solar power made up less than 1 percent. On the surface, it is mind-boggling to think that the U.S. is not capitalizing upon solar energy. After all, isn’t the sun always shining on one part of the world at any given time of day? The obvious answer is yes, and because of the country’s middle latitude geographical location, the southwestern part of the country is ideal for turning the sun’s rays into renewable and environmentally-friendly electricity. Unfortunately, weather, time of day and season can all hinder the energy possibilities, not just in the U.S., but across the world.
The SunShot Initiative: Helping to Make Solar Energy More Viable
The thing with the EIA or the U.S. Department of Energy is that their studies only look at the bigger picture and both organizations are concerned with making solar energy into a competitive and affordable energy source. Projects like the SunShot Initiative by the Department of Energy aim to reduce the cost of creating and installing solar panels, as well as access to the technology. According to the SunShot mission statement, the Department of Energy hopes to make solar energy a cost competitive energy source by 2020, which will then enable 15-18 percent of America’s electricity to be powered by the sun by 2030.
The SunShot Initiative is an excellent and realistic goal, with funding from the Department of Energy, researchers across the country have been able to devote more time into developing more cost-efficient solar panels. The program’s creators are hoping to inspire the nation in the same way former President John F. Kennedy did with his Moon Shot program, the program that lead the way for American astronauts to walk on the moon. Americans have a history of being inspired when there is intense competition. It is, after all, how we put a man on the moon and created the atomic bomb. According to the EIA, the U.S. is second to China in renewable electricity generation, with Brazil and Canada following close behind. If the policies under the SunShot Initiative are achieved, the U.S. can very well surpass China, that is, if they are not already embarking on their own version of SunShot.
How Many Solar Energy Cells Would it Take to Power a House?
On a national level, solar energy is not thriving the way the government or environmental and energy activists want it to because it is expensive and sometimes unreliable due to varying weather conditions, the cost of building and maintaining solar panels, and the current scale it takes to truly power a single household for a day. According to the U.S. Department of Energy a single photovoltaic cell—are solar cells that produce electricity from the sun—only produces about 1 to 2 W of power. To boost the electricity the cell produces, the cells are then connected into modules, which are further connected together to form arrays. There is no limit to how big an array of photovoltaic cells can be, but it may be a little far-fetched to believe that the entire nation can potentially run off of solar power. According to the EIA, in 2010, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. household was 958 kW, or the equivalent of 958,000 W or photovoltaic cells. Considering the average photovoltaic cell is about 100 mm by 100 mm, there would have needed to be 9.58 million meters of photovoltaic cells just to power one household for one month in 2010.
Solar Energy on a Smaller Scale
Setting aside government expectations for the technology, solar power is thriving on a much smaller scale in terms of gadgetry. In a silent and unintentional way, it seems like the American public has compensated for its lack of large-scale, solar powered homes and vehicles with solar powered gadgets. The gadgets are not large energy savers, but rather, tiny devices that help us reduce our growing carbon footprints. These gadgets range from pest control devices and flashlights to guitar tuners. The cells on all of these products are tiny, so the output of energy is relatively small, but their price and lifespan make these products more economical and practical for consumers. Products like the Nite Guard only serve one purpose—to ward off pests from gardens, chicken coops or other outdoor enclosures with a blinking red light—so it does not require a lot of power to operate. For $20 it may seem like a lot to pay for a small box that will sit outside all day, but the product is guaranteed to last for a while since it is weatherproof and does not require a change of batteries.
Most of these little gadgets are not made with the same high-quality, expensive solar panels, but when the lifespan of a residential solar panel is only 25 years, having a pocket gadget that will last for half that time, at a thousandth of the price, seems like a real bargain.