Thesis to be proved or disproved – Solar panels are not the most effective or safest method of producing energy for the human race.
Term essential for proving this thesis – Solar cells, Solar power, Energy capacity factor, Solar Farms
How light turns into energy
It seems counterintuitive that solar power is not the cleanest form of energy. The advertisement for solar power being “green” tricks the consumer into thinking that it’s a no-brainer for the human race to invest in a full transition into solar. This is not the case, for the production of solar panels’ solar cells is harmful to the environment. The process emits greenhouse gasses, and they aren’t nearly as effective when it comes to the energy capacity factor of other cleaner energy production sources. On top of this, the cost and space efficiency of solar farms makes it extremely cumbersome for companies to invest in large solar farms. When the price per watt of the solar panel is scaled up to be comparable to other power sources, the price gap grows exponentially with most of the other energy production.
Everything solar starts with the solar cell. A representative from the Office of Solar Energy Technologies goes over the basics of a solar cell in their article “Solar Photovoltaic Cell Basics.” The solar cell does 1 of three things when it comes into contact with light. It will reflect, absorb, or pass through the cell. Since the cell is composed of semiconductor material, when any of these three scenarios occurs, the light’s energy will transfer to the electrons flowing through the semi-conductor material resulting in an electrical current. This current is then caught by the conductive metals on the solar panel’s grid that then make their way to the electrical grid the solar panel is hooked onto. According to Sara Gambon in “Will Solar Panels Work During A Power Outage,” the solar panels are connected to the main grid the power from the panels will not be utilized during a power outage. The most common solar cell semiconductor is silicon derived from quartz. According to the representative silicon “represents approximately 95% of the [solar cell] modules sold today” and has an environmentally harmful process to produce.
The process of producing solar panels releases harmful toxins into the environment. The production of a solar panel starts at the solar cell. They begin the resource required to actually produce a solar cell is quartz, which is dangerous to the workers who have extracted from the earth. Dustin Mulvaney claims that Silicon gas emitted from unrefined crystals can “put the miners, [and others who interact with it] at risk of the lung disease silicosis”. Along with the silicosis, mining, in general, has never been a risk-free process even with machinery. Next comes the refinement of quartz crystals into metallurgical-grade silicon which requires casting them into a large furnace which Mulvaney says “takes a lot of energy” in the form of thermal power to keep running. These furnaces release carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere while operating. Mulvaney continues to explain how the next step in refinement creates polysilicon but releases silicon tetrachloride. Silicon tetrachloride or SiCl4 is a very toxic compound that will release hydrochloric acid and emit harmful fumes if it comes into contact with water. Many companies simply throw away this toxic compound, which contacts water commonly. The polysilicon from this process is then manufactured into a solar cell, before being placed in the panel
Another factor in Solar is the amount of space they take up. Solar panels are big, and there have to be a ton of them to be efficient. According to Mikayla Rumph in “How Much Power is 1 Gigawatt,” it would take 3,125,000 photovoltaic (traditional solar farm) solar panels to produce 1 gigawatt. Given that one of these panels is 78 inches by 39 inches, the size a solar farm has to be to produce the amount of power of a nuclear plant (1 gigawatt) is 1388.88 acres. In comparison, a nuclear plant takes up 50 acres. Solar power takes up 30 times as much space as the second largest (in terms of space taken up) conventional source of power. On top of the amount of space this takes up, transporting 3.1 million solar panels is no walk in the park.
The sun isn’t shining all day, so solar panels only work at their max capacity when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. That is 24.9% of the time in a year. In order for these plants to work at that capacity, they need a large backup power source to stay online, and such storage isn’t currently available on the grid. Solar farms turn to pair with reliable baseload power like coal with a capacity factor of 40.2%, gas with 56.6%, or nuclear with 92.5%, to stay afloat when the sun is not shining. Energy capacity is an important factor when it comes to efficiency. According to Mike Mueller in “Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close,” solar requires three and a half solar farms equal in price to one nuclear plant to match that said nuclear plant’s energy capacity. There is no place on earth that a solar panel would work at a higher capacity than any other energy producer, and every other energy producer can be built on almost any land. To make up for this more solar panels have to be produced.
Price per watt is the amount of money it takes to produce 1 watt of energy. Solar’s price per watt can vary from $0.70 and $2.20. Like other products buying in bulk costs less. If a company wanted to create a 1-gigawatt solar farm and they were buying at $0.70 per watt it would cost 700 million dollars. However, if they bought at $2.20 per watt it would cost 2.2 billion dollars. The price varies significantly depending on. This price doesn’t factor in the price of the 1.3 thousand acres or the price to install each and every panel. For comparison nuclear cost 25 cents per 1000 watts or 0.025 per watt. Solar always comes out as more expensive. The extreme number of panels required for large-scale production is the largest drawback.