Let’s hear it for the sun, the source of light that warms the planet, cheers hearts, and provides one of the cheapest sources of energy.
These days, harnessing solar power is proving to be “the cheapest fuel in history,” according to International Energy Agency. With the cost of fossil fuels climbing, the IndyStar reported that Hoosiers are paying as much as $15 per month more this year, and “residential customers at four out of Indiana’s five big utilities are now paying an average electric bill that is higher than $150 per month, according to data from the state’s utility regulatory commission.”
Bloomberg reported that energy bills “are relentlessly climbing because prices for the two biggest power-plant fuels — natural gas and coal — have surged in the last year.” The fuel market has been throttled in part by the lingering effects of the pandemic as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine causing uncertainty in Europe. In the US, summer demand climbed because as much of the nation sweltered in a hot, humid summer.
Meanwhile, the cost of solar (and wind) power keeps dropping. Consider that in 2013, building solar and wind power sources dropped below to about 81 cents a watt. Comparably, building a coal-powered plant was about $3 a watt and natural gas was about $1. Every time the production of photovoltaic cells (PVCs) doubles, the cost to make them drops 20%. Furthermore, efficiency, design and storage improve drastically. What cost over $76 a watt in the late 1970s is now 74 cents a watt.
Texans are on track to save $11 billion this year through wind and solar power, according to a study by IdeaSmiths. They’ve reduced air pollutants — carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxide, and improved water usage in the state, the study said. (Carbon emissions are closely related to high asthma and poor health outcomes.)
It’s not just Texas. Great Britain built extensive off-shore windfarms that have created record low prices for that nation. One Little Rock, Arkansas supplier has such a surplus of wind energy they offer the lowest wholesale prices in the US. It could happen here.
Ten years ago, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that fracking would allow natural gas to be a bridge to solar power, giving way to far healthier sources of power.
Here we are, at an inflection point. Renewable energy is no longer “alternative” power. It’s part of our nutritious energy breakfast. It has detractors but the arguments against renewables are crumbling. It’s just fiscally more responsible to adopt solar and wind energy sources and incorporate them into a comprehensive energy plan. Furthermore, renewables offer energy independence and reduce carbon emissions.
In spite of everything going for green, some remain reticent to turn away from fossil fuels. Arguments include the need for firm backup energy, loss of farmland, and sound issues.
If we had a 100% solar-wind energy grid, what happens when weather is whimsical? Winds calm; clouds persist. In seasons of high heating demand, Indiana often sits under still skies or a grey dome. Presently, storage options for solar and wind energy are limited — though that technology too is changing — so from where will power flow on a hot night? What are our options for “firm clean energy sources?” Hoosiers wonder.
States have explored their options, including natural gas combined with carbon sequestration (putting the emissions underground), geothermal power plants, and nuclear plants. On the journey to a reliable, renewable grid, which of these are prudent bridges for the future?
For those concerned that energy production will shrink land in America’s breadbasket, Yale’s 360 reported in July that new configurations will enable more efficient “agrisolar” or “agrivoltaics” farm synergies. Some configurations are upright, bifacial panels that capture the sun’s energy when the sun is lower on the horizon, like morning and afternoon, when demand is high. In Germany, farmers grow hay between these panels. The configuration has reduced the need for “peaker” or “clean firm” energy sources.
Some other solar plants that track the sun are used in France’s wine country and Japan. These agrisolar plants meld best with diverse agriculture products such as fruits and vegetables or with sheep farming. In California, the Netherlands and Australia, compact, flat configurations on the ground use the heat sink from the earth to improve efficiency.
In addition, evolving technology has increased the amount of energy that can be harvested by a third while using half the acreage of 10 years ago. With the variety of options for designing a solar plant, each community can determine which type best meets its needs. It will no longer need to be a question of “no solar” but which design?
The two other concerns about moving to solar and other renewable energy sources are the end-of-life for panels (and wind turbines) as well as sound production. The Harvard Business Review predicted about 315,000 metric tons of waste by 2050 would “clog landfills “ because newer panels have radically improved efficiency and cost so much less. That tonnage counted for residential solar panels alone.
Notably, HBR’s piece did not object to the implementation of solar energy nor to its pace. Rather it called for a comprehensive recycling cost plan similar to the EU’s which apportions the financial burden of recycling and waste management to the manufacturers before landfills are clogged or before we have “orphan” waste from companies no longer in business. (In the EU, the cost is distributed by the market share held by companies.)
As for sound concerns, we need context and perspective. Yes, there is sound, but what kind, how much, and is there a cost-benefit trade-off? Though solar panels create little to no sound, the inverters that convert solar power from DC to AC voltage do have a tonality that some states and municipalities regulate. Firms such as Elephant Energy and AcenTech advise that there are simple solutions based on the placement of inverters. One key study in Massachusetts — a state that regulates decibels in residential areas- found that the noise from panels themselves is “negligible and becomes inaudible from 50-100 feet away.” The inverters and fans that cool them make about 65 decibels (dBA) of an intense tone that becomes inaudible within 500 feet. If the inverter is placed centrally within the solar farm or near an industrial side, it becomes inaudible. (By comparison, an average human conversation is about 60 dBA and the decibels in a thermal energy plant, such as a coal-fired plant, are between 90-95 dBA. Prolonged exposure, such as an 8-hour workday, at 80 dBA or higher leads to irreparable hearing loss.) In short, solar farms produce decibel levels equivalent to human conversation or a vacuum, which ebb based on proximity to the inverter, fan, or panels.
While acknowledging the concerns, it’s also important to note that renewable energy initiatives funded by the Inflation Reduction Act will save average U.S. households up to $220 annually on electricity bills while protecting against volatile fossil fuel price swings. The low hum of cost savings and better health are worth the change. Furthermore, our nation will improve its aging energy infrastructure and edge in global leadership.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.
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