Solar Power

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Since the U. S. is at war in the Middle East to protect its foreign oil interests, we have seen a rapid fluctuation in oil prices, first 35$, and 70$, and in recent days 115$` (Matthew Knight, CNN). As China, India and other nations rapidly increase their demand for fossil fuels; future fighting over energy looms large. In the meantime, power plants that burn coal, oil and natural gas, as well as vehicles everywhere, continue to pour millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, threatening the planet.

Scientists, engineers, economists and politicians have proposed various steps that could slightly reduce fossil-fuel use and emissions. These steps are not enough. The U. S. needs a system to free itself from fossil fuels. My analysis is that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer. Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. (Solar Southwest), and this shows the practicality of solar energy, but there are many other steps needed to successfully achieve this goal.

If we are to convert the country to solar power, massive amounts of land would have to be covered with photovoltaic panels and solar heating troughs. A direct-current transmission backbone would also have to be constructed to send that energy efficiently across the nation. The technology is ready, and it is able to power itself on a moment’s notice. Throughout this paper, I plan on presenting a brilliant idea that could provide 70 percent of the U. S. ‘s electricity and 40 percent of its total energy with solar power by 2050. I projected that this energy could be sold to consumers at rates equivalent to today’s rates for usual power sources.

The federal government would have to invest billions over the next 40 years to complete the entire nationwide transformation by 2050. That investment is considerable, but the payoff is greater. Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would replace about 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume (John Nielson, EDF). The plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, essentially cutting U. S. trade deficits and easing political tension in the Middle East and elsewhere.

If all goes according to plan, by 2050 U. S. carbon dioxide emissions would be well over 60% percent below 2005 levels, putting a major stop on global warming (EPA). This shows the projected efficiency of the project, and how good it would be for our current lifestyles. In the past few years the cost to produce photovoltaic cells and their infrastructure has dropped significantly, opening the way for large-scale urban and citywide deployment. Various cell types exist, but the least expensive panels today are thin films made of cadmium telluride (Scott Aluodes, HOWSTUFFWORKS). In my plan, by 2050 photovoltaic technology would provide almost 3,000 gigawatts.

We would need 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic arrays to be put up (A. Leitner, B. Owens, Platt’s Research and consulting). Although this area may sound enormous, installations already in place show that the land required for each gigawatt-hour of solar energy produced in the Southwest is less than that needed for a coal-powered plant when factoring in land for coal mining (CHRIS RHODES, ENERGY BALANCE). Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. , show that more than enough land in the Southwest is available without requiring use of environmentally sensitive areas, population centers or difficult terrain (NREL).

The main limiting factor of solar power, of course, is that it generates little electricity when skies are cloudy and none at night. Excess power must be produced during sunny hours and stored for use during the night. Most energy storage systems such as batteries are expensive or inefficient. Compressed-air energy storage has emerged as a successful alternative. Electricity from photovoltaic plants compresses air and pumps it into vacant underground caverns, abandoned mines, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells.

The pressurized air is released on demand to turn a turbine that generates electricity, aided by burning small amounts of natural gas. The turbines burn only 40 percent of the natural gas they would if they were fueled by natural gas alone, and better heat recovery technology would lower that figure to 30 percent (Energy advocate). Electricity from photovoltaic farms in the Southwest would be sent over high-voltage DC transmission lines to compressed-air storage facilities throughout the country, where turbines would generate electricity year-round.

The natural gas industry shows that suitable geologic formations exist in 75 percent of the country, often close to urban areas. Indeed, a compressed-air energy storage system would look similar to the U. S. natural gas storage system. The industry stores eight trillion cubic feet of gas in 400 underground reservoirs (Natural Gas. org). The geography of solar power is obviously different from the nation’s current supply scheme. Today coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants dot the landscape, built relatively close to where power is needed.

Most of the country’s solar generation would stand in the Southwest. The existing system of alternating-current power lines is not strong enough to carry power from these centers to consumers everywhere and would lose too much energy over long hauls. A new high-voltage, direct-current power transmission backbone would have to be built (William Yeager, DC Power). Studies indicate that long-distance DC lines lose far less energy than AC lines do over equivalent spans (Androcles, Google Groups). The backbone would radiate in all directions from the Southwest toward the nation’s borders.

The lines would end at converter stations where the power would be switched to AC and sent along existing regional transmission lines that supply customers. The AC system is also simply out of capacity, leading to noted shortages in Florida and other regions; DC lines are cheaper to build and require less land area than equivalent AC lines. About 500 miles of DC lines operate in the U. S. today and have proved reliable and efficient. No major technical advances seem to be needed, but more experience would help refine operations. (CHRIS RHODES, ENERGY BALANCE)

We have the technology at our fingertips ready to go, but we need an initiative to do so, and personally I see no greater initiative to start using technologies than protecting the future of our planet. These new technologies and methods that we have can significantly improve our odds against fighting smog, pollution, toxins, and other dangerous material to the environment. Most of these technologies are implemented today in one shape or another, but in order to create a massive combination of these, we need a firm and strong base to withstand the sheer monumental size of the project.

That base of operations is what is lacking today and we just do not have the mindset, not to mention the power to create such a system. However, this plan might be a viable option in the near future, and with today’s rapidly expanding technological innovations, it’s extremely likely that by the year 2050, we will already be utilizing a power system similar to this in its design on a full scale. And in that near future, these greener and more economically feasible technologies might just be what it takes to undo the damage already done to our beautiful planet we call home, Earth.

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