We don’t have to rip our mountains apart to power our toasters. A terawatt is equal to one trillion watts, and the sun hits earth with 20 TW. Our biggest power plants produce puny gigawatts of power a small fraction of the terawatts that the sun is bathing the earth with — easily enough to satisfy all of our energy needs, if only we knew how to harness it.
Of course, the solar energy level varies from place to place according to geography and weather. Here in Wisconsin we get about half the solar energy that is bathing Arizona, but it is still plenty of energy for all our needs.
So why isn’t everything humming along on solar power right now? People still think it costs too much.
Michael S. Arnold, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and director of the Advanced Materials for Energy and Electronics Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke at this week’s Wednesday Nite at the Lab symposium about how researchers are working to bring that cost down so that the percentage of solar power we are using is not where it currently is. RIDICULOUSLY MINISCULE. Check out this DOE chart.
Sun light is converted into electricity in a solar cell using semiconductors made of silicon – the second most common element in the earth’s crust, but converting the raw material into pure sheets of silicon is a complex and costly process. You can check it out on this You tube. The interesting part about manufacturing pure crystalline silicon is about 2 minutes into this 9 minute video and lasts for about 2 minutes. It forms the same kind of crystal as carbon-based diamonds, but with more space between the Si-Si bonds. I had never seen an actual purified silicone crystal before till I saw this video. It is about a foot in diameter and 8 feet long.
Once created, that very hard crystal has to be sliced it into very thin slices and polished and polished and polished to create a surface I can barely imagine. It’s not cheap, and it has taken decades to develop the technology to this point. Most of the effort has been focused on silicon wafers for the computer chip industry where high value-added costs are fairly easily tolerated for a tiny little micro-processor. But solar panels need to be big and cheap. That’s a huge challenge.
Dr. Arnold is at the cutting edge of research to make solar panels more affordable. Teams are trying to find both cheaper ways to make silicon as well as exploring other materials that might work as well and be easier to handle. He noted that since 1975, the cost of solar energy has dropped ten fold, and he expects we will see even more impressive advances in the coming decades.
The way to get from here to there is to push for more solar energy in every way we can. Be solar pioneers. Let our legislators know that we want them to be visionary here. Maybe more important — with our dollars. The more people who are demanding and producing solar power, the faster the industry will mature.
My power company, MG&E offers Green Power Tomorrow. Your power company probably offers something similar.
For about $7.50 per month, you can buy enough green power for your home to offset 100 percent of your electricity-generated carbon dioxide emissions. Businesses pay more.
You can make a point to support businesses who are buying green power. MGE lists those businesses who are, and yours may too.
Better yet, put on solar panel. We are working with Andrew Bangert at H&H Electric one of our area’s solar power leaders.
Yes, it will cost you, but think of it this way. Lot’s of stuff we choose to do is not economically justified. We do things for the intrinsic satisfaction. We own pets. We buy boats. We vacation. We eat out and take in a movie. Why not add green power surcharge to that category?