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Solar Energy as a Solution to All Energy Needs

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Energy sources sources play a very important role in all our lives, from the functioning of a television to heating up water to running any factory – we use energy sources day in and day out. The two types of energy sources are renewable and non-renewable; the non-renewable ones such as oil and coal cause a lot of harm to the environment even though they are cheap. On the other hand, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy are very expensive but also very harmless. As of now, the world consumes more of the non-renewable energy sources. According to recent studies, we have consumed more than 135 billion tonnes of crude oil (since oil drilling began in the 1850’s)1 which is a mixture of many hydrocarbons such as diesel, petroleum, kerosene, etc.

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Solar energy is one of the few energy sources which are effective and at the same time don’t cause a great amount of pollution. Petroleum, for example, is a source of energy which can be used only when it is burned – although the usage is so excessive and necessary, it results in the production of carbon dioxide, one of the main gases that contributes in global warming. Whereas solar energy is a very natural and harmless energy source which can be obtained by the sun.

Solar panels consist of smaller units called solar cells which are made up of silicon, a semiconductor. Silicon has an atomic number of 14, meaning it has 14 electrons out of which 4 are on the outer shell. Each of these electrons is connected to an outer electron of the neighbouring atom, creating a strong bond between atoms, preventing any current to flow. Some atoms however have a have an extra space in them, allowing for another electron. These extra spaces are created when photons (light) from the sun hit the cell with enough energy to kick out an electron from its place.

All electrons, being negative flow towards the top of the cell and the spaces, being positive move towards the bottom of the cell. These flowing electrons move out of the cell, in a metal tube towards an external circuit, where these electrons do work like turning on a ceiling fan. After this, they flow to the back of the cell which consists of an aluminium sheet. The whole process repeats only till sunlight is available. However, there are many issues with the implementation of solar panels around the world.

I chose to focus mainly on solar energy as it is one of the least used energy sources and I was curious to know whether solar energy being a dominant energy source is possible or not. This question comes under the topic, Sustainable Living. I have decided to go in depth about why the cost and infrastructure are problems for a nation to completely run on solar energy.

Cost and space required for the infrastructure

The average size of a solar panel for residential use is 66 inches by 33 inches (about 2 metres by 1 metre) and for commercial use such as solar farms, the typical size is 77 inches by 39 inches (about 2 metres by 1 metre). The larger the panel, the greater the absorption of sunlight hence installing many commercial solar panels increases the surface area resulting in a greater amount of absorption. It is a known fact that the population is only increasing day by day and so is the consumption of space by individuals. So, it is quite impossible for a solar farm to be installed as a full-fledged farm in an urbanised area or in a city. As a consequence of not adopting solar energy, it will lead to consumption of more non-renewable energy resulting in pollution. In order to bring in generation of solar energy in the city, the government should mandate solar rooftops while providing a building clearance permit for the construction of the house.

As the government mandates any house greater than 2400 square feet to have rainwater harvesting, installation of solar rooftops should also be insisted. To start off, this can be implemented on new houses and once stability is gained, it can be implemented on the existing houses. Even though it would take a lot of time, it would be useful in the long run. Since the government will be providing an interest subsidy loan, when a loan is taken for this purpose, there won’t be any interest rate which would be enough to convince the citizens to install solar panels. However they would have to take care of the maintenance which consists of washing the panels as it would be exposed to dirt/dust.

Not only that but studies have shown that increasing the usage of solar energy has actually increased employment in the USA especially in the installation sector. This means that many people have begun to install solar panels for residential purposes. When I say residential purposes, it is in context to the essential needs for the day-to-day activities in a household to run. For example, lighting a bulb, a water heating system, etc. The government of India had taken up an initiative to install rooftop solar panels. “India’s Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) sanctioned INR 50 billion (USD 750 million) funding for 30% capital subsidy for rooftop solar installations”2. A total capacity of 4200 MW was expected to be generated. However, it wasn’t possible to convince or implement this idea in all households.

Another project was taken up by Narendra Modi in 2012 wherein solar panels were installed on canal tops in Gujarat which is considered to be one of the sunniest states in India. The canal is 80,000 km long and “installing solar-panels over 30% of Gujarat’s canals could be used to meet nearly a fifth of India’s solar power targets by 2022”3. The reason why this idea has worked so well is that these panels were installed taking into consideration the management of space. The government didn’t compromise with the space by destroying the canals or causing any harm to the environment but they utilised the unused space on the canals. Also, this can’t be implemented elsewhere due to the geographical location.

Uneven distribution of sunlight around the world and weather dependance

We all know that the earth is round and when part of it is in sunlight, the rest would be in darkness. Nothing can be done about this but effective ways could be found where solar energy could be used at all times. If not, solar energy would only be useful when sunlight is available or else there would be no electricity at all.

According to a study done quite recently, China, Germany and Japan are the top three solar energy producers in the world. However, these and many other countries aren’t completely reliable on solar energy – China, being the largest producer and consumer of solar energy only obtains 1% of its electricity from solar energy 4.

There are quite a few areas which are completely unexposed to sunlight. One such country is Norway – there is a period of time called the Polar Night which starts in November and ends in January. During this time, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Also, during winters, the nights last longer than the days in many countries. Adapting to a fulltime solar energy usage wouldn’t be useful at all, be it in an area like Norway or any other country which experiences harsh winters.

In India, we require electricity the most in the evening hours whereas in a country like Germany all the chores are finished by the evening hence the people wouldn’t face a problem not having solar energy in those hours. However, India being closer to the equator receives more sunlight almost throughout the year. But, electricity isn’t required much in the daytime except for cooling facilities, television or as a source of charging gadgets. So, at peak hours of the availability of sunlight, the absorbed energy can be stored which could be used later when it is actually required.

The same phenomena can be used combined with a way to transport this energy so that it can be consumed by people who are exposed to lesser sunlight within the same country. For example, a town like Cherrapunji witnesses rain most of the time through the year. So, in places like the Thar Desert where the intensity of sunlight is very high, solar panels can be installed and the energy stored can be transported to Cherrapunji. However, such a high level of technology hasn’t been achieved yet but it could be developed in the future.

Comparison of issues

The cost and space required for the infrastructure of solar panels seems like a more important issue than the geographical location of the place. Nothing can be done about the cause of the location of the country but the cost can be looked into. Also, the course of action I suggested for issue 1 seems more plausible as it has a scope for implementation in the present time whereas what I suggested as a solution for issue 2 could take years together. Nevertheless, both issues equally affect the reason as to why running a nation completely on solar energy can be a problem.

Conclusion

At the moment, I don’t think a nation can entirely be run on solar energy due to many factors like its location, the cost of solar panels and the space they require. However, I feel like countries can take steps towards adapting a lifestyle with renewable energy sources (not specifically solar energy) convenient to its geographical location, and its government’s plans because in the end, the aim is to reduce as much pollution as possible, live a healthy life and make the world a better place for the future generations.

Personal Reflection

I don’t think I or anyone for that matter realises the involvement of electricity in our daily life as it has become a very natural. For me using electricity is as normal as drinking water everyday, wearing clothes everyday and all the activities we do everyday. Electricity is something I can’t imagine my life without – it is a very vital part. Despite its significance, we don’t keep in mind how much energy is being consumed when we turn the bulb on for a couple of hours or watch television for a few minutes. This is just at a personal level – I can’t picture how much energy is consumed everyday in the world. When we use electricity, we don’t know where that energy comes from. It can come from a variety of sources – from water to wind, from coal to nuclear energy and many more. We don’t keep in mind the amount of pollution that is being created every second when resources are being turned into a form of usable energy.

Till now, the idea of turning the world into a place which only uses solar energy never occured in my mind but now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem impossible. It sure would take years to come up with the right storage material and to come up with connections across the world for the energy to be transported but it would all be worth it. This would hopefully bring in peace and harmony between nations, putting an end to war and other violent activities as well which would contribute to the betterment of the world for the next generations to live in.

At this moment however, I don’t see solar energy being the sole provider of all the energy needs of a country as this is a huge step. A beginning could be installing solar panels in every household which could be an initiative from the government. These small steps would make a huge impact towards the main goal – to switch over to solar energy.

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