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TJ Chambers
EGEE 101 H
10 April 2014
Reflective Essay 2

Solar Energy: The Path to Safe Harbor

In a world defined by fossil fuel supply uncertainty and global warming fears, the utilization of
solar energy on a large scale, in conjunction with other renewable energies, offers a viable solution to the
problems plaguing our current energy strategy. Solar power, which takes energy from sunlight and
converts it into useable electricity, relies on an abundantly available source and releases no greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere. Where as coal, natural gas, and nuclear power (the three leading sources of
electricity respectively) are all associated with detrimental impacts to the environment and are grasping
onto a shaky future, solar power is clean, proven, and prepared to make the jump past these market-share
leaders. The push for this alternative, green energy has already begun on a localized, yet wide-spread
scale. With further development of and investigation in photovoltaic and concentrating solar power
technologies by companies such as Tesla, the future of electricity production glows brightly with potential
emanating from solar power.

The most abundant energy source on Earth permeates all corners of the world and is provided at
no cost. This source does not release harmful emissions, nor is its future supply uncertain. Yet, even at a
time of heightened concern for global climate change and fears of fossil fuel availability, this source
remains largely untapped. This seemingly fictitious creation of mine is actually something we all know
very well and rely on every day sunlight, or to be more specific, solar energy.
Although the sun radiates enough energy onto Earths surface every hour to meet the global
energy demand for an entire year (Solar Energy), less than 1% of the energy used in the United States
originates from solar sources (Renewable Sources). This statistic must change drastically and quickly if
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we as a civilization are to avoid the severe consequences of a carbon based energy production and
consumption system. Implementing such a technology on a large scale requires a determined, collective
effort among government, business, and consumers and demands a heavy up-front investment, but
considering the glum predictions of an energy crisis in the near future, solar is a logical, attainable option.
Solar energy is unlimited, it is clean, and it offers a glimpse of light at the end of the increasingly
narrowing tunnel of energy resource availability.
Harnessing the power of sunlight and utilizing it for human needs is not a new technology by any
means. This form of electromagnetic radiation, emitted from the sun and reaching Earths atmosphere in
just over eight minutes, is essential to all life as it fuels the process of photosynthesis and therefore
provides humans with access to necessary nutrients and energy. Furthermore, as far back as the 7th
Century B.C. magnifying glass was used to ignite fires by concentrating the suns rays (History of Solar),
providing heat, light, and the means to cook meat. Romans utilized the suns energy to heat water in their
culturally significant bathhouses around which civilization revolved for several centuries (History of
Solar). Indirectly, solar energy is responsible for the creation of fossil fuels (and wind power) upon which
society relies so heavily today (Renewable Sources). The most exciting aspect of sunlight, however, is
the ability to convert solar radiation into useable electrical energy. Developing this technology further
and raising awareness about its potential can help supplant our reliance on environmentally damaging
sources with uncertain futures like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.
Two methods currently exist to convert sunlight into electricity, with the first tracing its roots
back to 1839 and the French Physicist, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. He observed how when silver
chloride is exposed to light, it can generate an electrical current that flows through connected platinum
electrodes. This became known as the Photovoltaic Effect and states that when certain materials absorb
photons from incoming light, some electrons will become excited and are released, producing a voltage
(Lincot). This underlying concept is what led to the experimentation with and development of
photovoltaic (or PV) cells.
A solar cell is essentially a sandwich consisting of two layers: the light absorbing layer and the
electrical current-carrying layer connected to an external circuit (National Research Council, 77). The
first legitimate PV cell capable of powering small electrical equipment was developed by Bell Labs in
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1954 (History of Solar). Soon thereafter, companies like Western Electric, Hoffman Electronics, and
NASA began to refine the technology, explore different material combinations for each layer, and
improve the conversion efficiency (History of Solar). With the launch of the Vangaurd I space satellite
powered by silicon solar cells and subsequent, similarly designed satellites throughout the 1960s, the
potential for solar energy was becoming clearer. Not long afterwards as the world dealt with an oil crisis,
PV as a viable option to power buildings, especially small residences, began to be explored (History of
Solar). More recently, technological, production, and distribution advancements have led to far more
efficient, cheaper, and readily
available PV cells easily
integrated into the roof and
other surfaces of an existing
structure (National Research
Council, 49). These
improvements coupled with
the raised awareness of the
need for renewable energies
paint a bright future of
potential for photovoltaic
Where as PV cells directly generate electricity from sunlight, the second method of conversion is
indirect, meaning that there is an extra, intermediary step involved. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is
divided into three primary layouts (parabolic troughs, power towers, and dish-Stirling engines), but all are
based off of the concept of using mirrors and lenses to focus and concentrate light in order to heat up a
liquid which then drives a turbine (Concentrating Solar Power). To work effectively, these systems
require a location with high quality sun exposure over long periods of time. Consequently, this confines
solar thermal technology implementation in the United States to the Southwest (National Research
Council, 86). Additionally, unlike solar cells which can be utilized on a small, localized scale, CSP
systems are typically built on a large, regional scale over several acres of land. This means that there is a
Figure 1: Solar Cell Efficiencies (National Research Council, 79)
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much larger upfront investment cost, but
ultimately CSP is predicted to become the
lowest cost solar electricity at a utility scale
(National Research Council, 92).
Currently, the generation of
electricity (considered a secondary source)
is the largest consumer of primary energy,
followed by the transportation sector.
Renewable energy, of which solar power is
only a small part, accounts for only 12% of
the total electric power produced in the
United States (Energy in Brief). Although
solar power currently holds only a
minuscule market share, the circumstances
surrounding coal, natural gas, and nuclear
power suggest an alternative fuel will be
required when these begin to falter. Coal is
already witnessing a steep decline as its
pollution problems and profitability
compared to natural gas have made it an
inferior choice. Natural gas, experiencing a
trend in the opposite direction as the
development of fracking has taken off, is
falling prey to harsh criticism of its impact on the environment, as well. Finally, nuclear energy may
technically be a form of clean energy, but considering the recent Fukushima incident, the unresolved issue
of storing nuclear waste, and the aging of many current facilities, this sources future is not nearly as
hopeful as it once was. Solar energy, on the other hand, in conjunction with other renewable energies like
Figure 2: CSP Configurations (National Research Council, 87)
Figure 3: Primary Energy Consumption (Energy in Brief)
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wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric, is gaining momentum, does not harm the Earth, and has the capacity
to overtake the electricity generation market.
Critics will be quick to raise doubts in this admittedly idealistic outlook by pointing out the
technologys lack of efficiency, the inability to effectively store energy at the moment, and the high costs
incurred by necessary infrastructure upgrades. While it is true that the average consumer panel only
converts about 10-15% of the solar energy landing on its cells into electrical energy (National Research
Council, 79), this point is made moot by sunlights abundant nature. Efficiency is not nearly as important
when the source is infinitely available, not to mention this energy is provided free of cost all around the
globe. Moving along, storage of electrical energy is truthfully only a minor concern. Excess electricity
generated locally can be put back into the grid, often at a profit. Furthermore, renewable energies work
most effectively together. So, at night when solar panels no longer generate electricity, other sources such
as wind power, hydroelectric, and geothermal can handle the load until dawn arrives. Finally, the issue of
upgrading the current infrastructure at a steep cost does not seem like as much of a burden when
compared to the prediction of the havoc to ensue following an energy crisis or economic meltdown as
climate change impacts our global systems. Why must we live in a world of reaction rather than
proactive change? Plus, the upgrades that must be carried out will most certainly create a vast number of
jobs, much like the public works projects instituted throughout the 1930s to help cope with the economic
The fact of the matter is that change and innovation are a necessary part of evolution, and unless
we commit to change in the energy sector now, we will have no option but to face the dire consequences
head on. We cannot expect to carry on in a world where fossil fuel supply drives conflict and national
economies take precedence over the health of our one and only Earth. Solar power is ready to step up to
the plate and prove its worth over the problematic energy sources of today. With a push in the right
direction, a solar power snowball will form and its momentum will triumph over all other energies.
This very push is already being experienced, especially of the local level. What is so unique
about solar power, especially photovoltaics, is that with this method of electricity generation, large power
plants or concrete-encased nuclear reactors are not necessary by any means. Solar panels and the
accompanying components can be purchased in small quantities and simply incorporated into existing
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structures such as a buildings roof or facade. 65% of all electricity is consumed by buildings (Ching), so
why not locate the energy source directly where it is needed? In fact, a recent study suggests that if solar
panels were located on all suitable residential and commercial building rooftop space, upwards of 15
million GWh/year of electric energy can be produced (National Research Council, 50). This is more than
three times the amount of electricity generated by the United States in 2007, all by locating solar cells on
pre-existing structures with no extra land set aside for photovoltaic construction. This sensible solution to
electricity generation is gaining attention among consumers as demand for solar increased by 41% in
2013, including a 60% demand increase in the residential
sector (Walsh).
Entire communities are beginning to sprout up
around the world that strive to showcase the potential for
renewable energies and dramatically, if not completely,
reduce their reliance on aforementioned limited and
destructive energy sources. This successful sustainable
living style is demonstrating first-hand the attainability of
green energies like solar power. Vauban, a rapidly expanding town on the outskirts of Freiburg, Germany,
is a prime example of these revolutionary live-work developments. This district is a self-described social,
ecological, economic, and cultural experiment (Our History). The specific low energy standards
residences must meet, the great discouragement of personal cars, and the active community involvement
work together to create an environment of intelligent energy practices, integrative design, and social
responsibility (Schrpfer, 22). With a commitment to net-zero energy use, photovoltaics have become an
essential component to and identifying element of the communitys residences (see image to the right).
What is most startling is that Germany has one of the most overcast climates on average, yet such a region
dependent on sunlight is still able to function perfectly well (Whitlock). With this in mind, populations
around the world, including large portions of the United state need to take notice and realize the potential
this technology holds.
Communities such as Vauban are just the beginning though. As a prospective architect, I am
excited to witness and directly influence the implementation of solar, sustainable systems into tall
Figure 4: Vauban Residences (Our History)
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buildings. Within the field, there is a growing trend toward an aesthetic based on both these new
technologies and functionality. Buildings are living, breathing objects. They are part of the environment
and rather than parasites leeching on the Earths resources, buildings should develop a symbiotic
relationship with their surroundings. Consequently, self-sufficient strategies are being incorporated into
the massing and conceptual nature of a building. Renewable energy components are no longer simply
tacked onto the structure after the design is complete, but rather considered from the initial sketch and
integrated into the design itself. PV is being utilized on every surface imaginable and soon enough, solar
cells will be as common a feature on a building as a doorknob or window.
Concentrating solar power, affiliated more with the large-scale projects is experiencing an
increased interest, as well. The Solar One power tower, located in Southern California and completed in
1981, represented one of the first successful CSP plants, capable of producing 10 MW. As of 2011 the
global CSP capacity totaled just below 1800 MW with an incredible 1.5 GW of new facilities under
construction in the United States alone (Swain). Tesla, an automaker of electric cars, announced plans to
develop a Gigafactory somewhere in the American Southwest. This factory, requiring between 500 and
1,000 acres of land, would have the capacity to produce batteries for 500,000 cars annually and employ
6,500 people (Lobosco). This boom of utility-sized solar plants not only offers a unique design challenge,
but will also serve as a physical marker on Earths surface of the direction we are heading.
As we look towards the future, accepting that our current energy methodology will only result in
heightened conflict and imminent turmoil and recognizing the powerful capabilities of renewable energies
like solar power is a key first step in righting the course of this Titanic-sized energy problem. With an
uncertain fossil fuel future and grim climate change consequences looming just off in the distance, we are
sailing into iceberg-laden waters by not making a genuine effort to move away from a carbon based
system. Solar power technology has developed significantly over the years and is ready to be utilized.
Environmentally-conscious communities like Vauban have demonstrated the successful integration of
renewable energies into a functioning, expanding region. An upfront investment is necessary and solar
cannot lead the charge without help from wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal, but the energy is there for
the taking, it is free, and it is clean. The time for us to turn away from impending catastrophe and follow
the sunlight into the safe harbor of a world not defined by carbon, but by solar is now.
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Works Cited
Ching, Francis D.K. Building Construction Illustrated, 4th Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: Jon Wiley and
Sons, Inc., 2008. Print.
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Technologies. Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS
Information Center. N.p., N.d. Web. 1 April 2014. <>.
"Energy in Brief: What are the major sources and users of energy in the United States?." US Energy
Information Administration. N.p., 1 Aug 2013. Web. 5 Mar 2014. <
The History of Solar. U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. N.p.,
2001. Web. 1 April 2014. <>.
Lincot, Daniel. Photovoltaic Energy, Introduction. Solar Energy. Ed. Christoph Richter. New York:
Springer, 2013. 170-174. Print.
Lobosco, Katie. Tesla to raise $1.6 billion for Gigafactory. CNN Money. N.p., 27 Feb 2014. Web.
8 April 2014. <>
National Research Council. Electricity from Renewable Resources: Status, Prospects, and Impediments.
Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010. Print.
"Our History." Vauban DE. N.p.. Web. 5 Mar 2014. <>.
Renewable Sources: Solar. The National Academies: What You Need to Know About Energy. N.p.,
2014. Web. 29 March 2014. <
Schrpfer, Thomas. Ecological Urban Architecture: Qualitative Approaches to Sustainability. Basel,
Switzerland: Birkhauser, 2012. Print.
"Solar Energy." National Geographic. N.p., 16 10 2013. Web. 4 Mar 2014. <http://

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Swain, Janet and Eric Martinot. Renewables Bounced Back in 2010, Finds REN21 Global Report.
Renewable Energy World. N.p., 29 September 2011. Web. 9 Apr 2014. <
Walsh, Bryan. "A Bright Year for Solar in the U.S.But There Are Clouds on the Horizon." TIME. N.p.,
5 Mar 2014. Web. 6 Mar 2014. <
Whitlock, Craig. Cloudy Germany a Powerhouse in Solar Energy. The Washington Post. N.p., 5 May
2007. Web. 9 April 2014. <