If you’ve ever thought about going solar, chances are that you’ve primarily got your pocketbook in mind. In the last 15 years, the prices of solar equipment and installation have dropped dramatically, and people all across the world are starting to take advantage. To be certain, these favorable economics are the reason for solar’s monumental growth in recent years. In this article, however, we’re going to take a step back from economics to think about another hugely important driver of solar and other renewable energy sources: The concept of sustainability.
Sustainability is what it sounds like: the idea that we should conduct our lives in a way in which we can sustain for generations to come. Sustainability is about making sure that we’re leaving the Earth as a good place for our children, grandchildren, and so on, so that they may lead happy, healthy and productive lives. When our actions are not sustainable, the implication is that we’ll need to change our ways at some point in the future, whether it’s because we’ve depleted resources, damaged our environment, or jeopardized our health.
Extracting oil and natural gas from the ground: Not sustainable.
Setting fire to the amazon rainforest to create more space for livestock and agriculture: Not sustainable.
Producing massive amounts of garbage that ends up getting deposited in landfills: Not sustainable.
Relying on combustion fuel power plants that create harmful emissions and endanger surrounding communities? Not sustainable.
The idea behind sustainability is not to be perfect, but to replace some of our habits that are not sustainable with better practices. These might be small fixes, or they may be slightly larger in scale, but the important thing is that they’re steps in the right direction. It’s never easy to make these types of changes in our lives. After all, as of 2019, there are 7.7 billion people living on Earth. Realistically, we may never be able to achieve true sustainability, but we can certainly do better than we’re doing now.
However, sustainability does not necessarily mean that we need to sacrifice economic development, only that we need to be smart about how we develop. This is especially true when it comes to sustainability in the energy sector. A full-scale overhaul of our electricity system would not only be the most sustainable thing to do, but it would also create millions of good-paying jobs. According to a recent article from Forbes, there are already 3.3 Americans employed in the renewable energy sector. That means that renewable energy workers outnumber fossil fuel workers by three to one. If we collectively decided to transition to the most sustainable energy system possible, we’d create a huge number of stable, high paying jobs, particularly for blue-collar workers.
Another facet of sustainability is that we should live in harmony with our environment to whatever extent possible. That means conserving our wilderness spaces, respecting our natural resources, and reducing pollution as much as possible. It also means finding creative ways to promote a healthy planet, while still marching forward and progressing as a species.
One excellent example of this idea put into practice is described below. Some solar farm developers are now planting pollinator-friendly grasses and flowers in the fields that house the solar arrays. This is a brilliant idea for a couple of reasons. For one, it encourages a healthy ecosystem. Pollinators are extremely important for propagating the plants which anchor the local food chains. Planting these local species of the ground cover serves to increase the habitat of the pollinators.
The other benefit of this strategy is that covering the ground beneath the solar arrays with plants creates a cooler micro-climate around the panels. The plants soak up some of the sun rays and use that energy for photosynthesis, and so there is less heat energy being absorbed by the ground. This slightly cooler micro-climate can actually make the solar system more efficient, by providing a better operating environment. Solar cells work better in colder conditions, due to the inverse relationship between temperature and voltage. In hotter temperatures, voltage decreases, and therefore less power is produced. The boosts in efficiency created by this process of planting flowers and grasses around solar farms are marginal, but when you’re dealing with thousands of panels over the course of 20 or 30 years, small boosts in efficiency can add up to significant increases over the life of the systems.
Practices like this show that when we apply a little brainpower, we can develop solutions that allow us to live more sustainably, while not inhibiting societal progress. This can be a difficult line to walk, but humans have shown their ability time and time again to solve difficult problems. As long as we’re pointed in the right direction, there’s always hope that we can use our skills of innovation to create a better world.
When most people think about renewable energy, the first thing that comes to mind is environmentalism. It’s true that renewable electricity generators like wind and solar produce no toxic emissions or water contamination, but that’s just one factor that has spurred growth in the renewable sector.
For folks who know a little more about the subject, the next thing to come up might be economics. Since our fossil fuel resources are finite, it’s only logical that traditional power prices will rise in conjunction with fuel scarcity. Therefore, it makes economic sense to invest in renewable generation that requires no traditional fuel input.
These are both great reasons for us to build out our clean power infrastructure, but there’s one more advantage to renewable generation that’s not often discussed: National Security. Electricity has become a crucial element in just about everything we do. It’s essential for communication, food storage, healthcare, and a whole lot more. Without a steady supply of electricity, things could devolve very quickly into chaos. That’s why it’s imperative to have a dependable electricity system, and renewables can help us achieve that.
The fuel for renewables is wind, sunshine, or any other type of energy that’s already present here on Earth. Since the fuel already exists where it’s needed, there’s no need to spend any time or resources collecting or transporting it. There’s also less possibility of an interruption in the supply chain. Take natural gas for instance. Before use in a power plant, that natural gas has to be extracted and shipped to its final destination. If there was a disruption at any point in that supply chain (like a problem with the extraction machinery, or a leak in the transport phase), it could mean that the power plant isn’t able to operate as usual.
In addition to vulnerable supply chains, traditional power generators are also vulnerable to extreme weather or sinister actions. Because the generators are enormous and vital to the power system, taking one offline could mean big problems for the grid. One risk is that the transmission infrastructure around the power plant could be destroyed in an earthquake or other catastrophic events. There’s also a very real risk of terrorists targeting our power supply to cause mass chaos. Because renewable assets tend to be smaller and more widely distributed, the system becomes stronger and more difficult to disrupt.
Another potential risk to our power grid is hacking. Because most of the control systems for power plants were designed before cyber-security became a focal point, they can be vulnerable to malicious actors hacking in and taking control. Renewable energy is less susceptible to these kinds of attacks because the technology is much newer and harder to manipulate. Another benefit is the decentralized nature of renewables, as described in the previous paragraph.
To further illustrate the ways in which renewable energy improves National Security, let’s take the US Department of Defense as an example. The DOD is the single largest user of energy on the planet. That energy is crucial to the purpose of the DOD, which is outlined in their mission statement: “…to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” The DOD turned to renewables early on, due to their flexible and resilient nature. For many military applications, bases are set up in remote or hostile locations where a traditional power supply is not available. Therefore all electricity has to be produced by portable generators, which require a continuous supply of combustible fuel. According to a DOD study in Afghanistan in 2007, 1 in 24 of these fuel convoys resulted in an American casualty. When renewable generators are used in place of traditional ones, the frequency of such fuel convoys can be reduced. As put by Michael McGhee, the Executive Director of U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives, “What we are looking at when we see renewables is a self-resupplying power source.” In this way, the deployment of renewable energy makes our troops safer in combat zones.
While renewable energy is certainly helping to increase our national security, there is still much work to be done to fortify our electricity system. In addition to the increased deployment of renewable energy technologies, we also need to address our aging grid infrastructure. By investing in both of these things, we could bolster our energy security and help to protect ourselves from chaotic power outages.
In the developed world, most of us take electricity for granted. We flip a switch, and the lights go on. We plug in the refrigerator, and it automatically keeps our food preserved at a safe temperature. We turn a dial, and our antique lava lamps emit an enticing glow. Reliable power is nearly always available when we need it, and when it’s not, it usually returns relatively quickly. While we may not often give it much thought, the world of electricity generation and distribution is extremely complex, and it’s taken a lot of work to get where we are today.
The very idea of an electrified grid is rather astounding. While many of us see electricity as something that can be turned on and off, the reality is actually the opposite. The grid operates as a closed circuit, meaning that electricity is continually flowing through it. Thinking of the grid as a plumbing system can be a helpful analogy. There must be a given volume of water within the pipes, and there must be pressure to send the water where it needs to be. Volume and pressure must be present throughout the entire system in order to pump water through the pipes. The same is true of electricity. We achieve this constant “volume” (current) and “pressure” (voltage) through a complex network of power plants, transmission lines, and transformer stations. The result is a reliable supply of electricity, where it’s needed and when it’s needed.
The electric grid is truly a marvel of human innovation. However, the existing system also has some severe shortcomings that must be addressed. For one thing, a massive power grid is extremely expensive to install and maintain. That’s one reason why distributed generation resources like solar will actually relieve some of the burdens on the grid since power will not need to be transported great distances from where it’s created to where it’s used. Another problem with our current electrical setup is the interconnectedness of it all. On the one hand, having a massive linked system is the only way that electrification of large areas has been possible. However, this aspect of the grid can also leave us vulnerable. If a tree is blown over and takes out a powerline, that can mean the loss of power for people miles away from the problem area. One tool that’s used to alleviate this vulnerability is the creation of micro-grids. Micro-grids are small scale grids for an individual property or a small area. They can be connected to the larger grids when things are functioning normally, and isolate themselves when they’re not. Onsite generation capacity like solar and energy storage systems can supply a micro-grid without depending on the larger electricity grid.
In developing parts of the world, many people do not have access to a centralized grid that supplies constant power. In spite of this, electrification continues to be more and more important in the modern world. Electricity is key for long-distance communication, sanitation, provision of healthcare, lighting, refrigeration, and countless other applications. That’s why many communities are turning to solar as a source of reliable power.
Take for example the Cambodian village of Prek Toal. Prek Toal is a floating village, one of many on Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap. For most of the year, the lake has an area larger than that of Singapore. As of the most recent government census (2013), there were over one million people living in floating structures on the lake and its tributaries. Villages move numerous times every year, as the lake expands in the wet season, and contracts in the dry. Water levels can fluctuate by as much as 30 feet. Due to the mobile nature of these homes, traditional electric grid service is not an option.
Most homes in Prek Toal use a boat or car batteries for their essential electricity needs. Batteries are charged at a dedicated floating structure in the middle of the village, which houses a large diesel generator. Fuel must be regularly brought in by boat from the nearest city, Siem Reap, and thus power is one of the most expensive things the villagers need to buy.
Within the last few years, solar has become more prominent in Prek Toal. As solar prices continue to drop globally, it’s becoming a reasonable proposition for villagers to buy one or two modules to charge their batteries during the day. Solar panels don’t require regular fuel input like the diesel generator does, which means less regular expense for the villagers.
Solar energy alone cannot replace the complex ecosystem of electricity generation and distribution, but it can definitely play a key role. By deploying more solar along with energy storage and other distributed forms of energy generation, we can work towards supplying more reliable power to communities all over the world.