by Emely Rodriguez
Becoming a more sustainable community starts with small changes that can help to create a cleaner, brighter future. We can expand on what has already been done by installing solar panels on public buildings, such as municipal buildings, post offices, libraries, and public schools. Solar power would provide a cleaner, renewable source of energy that benefits everyone in our community.
A solar panel is a group of electrically-connected solar cells enclosed in a frame, and it converts visible light into electrical energy. Solar panels create direct current (DC), which usually flows into an inverter to convert it into alternating current (AC) that can be used to power a home or a building and the machinery or equipment within. Once the system is built, solar power is renewable and free, so it reduces costs and enables more investment towards our community, such as improving education, repairing roads, maintaining historical buildings, and planting trees. According to MIT News, the cost of solar panels has gone down 99% in the last four decades, and it is now the least expensive form of energy — cheaper than coal, natural gas, and other energy sources. In practice, solar systems also require equipment to store the energy and make it so it will be accessible when less is energy is being produced (such as cloudy days or in the evening). This often involves batteries to store DC power, and means the full solar system can be costly, because battery prices vary depending on capacity in kilowatt hours (kWh).
The solar investment tax credit (ITC) gives tax breaks to homeowners and businesses, while cities and government offices have to pay full price — but the overall annual return on investment (ROI) is still more than 20%, according to the Department of Energy. In just a few years, this investment would pay for itself and benefit the community tremendously.
Lowering the cost of inspections would make homeowners and businesses more likely to go solar. In 2019, the average cost of inspections was around $159 to $300 in the US, and lowering this cost would encourage more people to invest in solar.
There are several technologies for creating solar cells, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film.
- Monocrystalline silicon panels (Mono-Si) have single-crystal structure that serves as a photovoltaic light absorbing material; it is very effective, durable, and long lasting, but is more expensive than the other types of panels. For homeowners, monocrystalline is a great option, because the roof on most houses can handle the weight of these panels, helping the panels capture more light and create more energy.
- Polycrystalline silicon panels (Poly-Si) are faster and cheaper to make than monocrystalline panels, but they are less effective in high temperatures and have a shorter life span.
- Thin film (TFSC) panels are the least expensive of the main technologies and are commonly used on commercial buildings. Many commercial buildings are built with is made of polymer roofing, similar to what has become popular for decks. Because it is made by melting recycled plastics, these roofs are unable to withstand the weight of the panels and a large installation could damage these buildings.
- Amorphous silicon panels (A-Si) are made with non-crystalline silicon and are the most developed thin-film technology.
There are many other types of solar panels in the research or development phases using a variety of thin film technologies. In August of 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy announced 20 million dollars in funding to advance perovskite solar photovoltaic technologies. Although it is still in development, this technology has shown to have great potential for high performance and low production costs— and has been shown to be safer and more stable. Biohybrid is another technology that is still in research, discovered by a researcher at Vanderbilt University. This system is unique as it uses a combination of organic matter called Photosystem I to emulate the natural process of photosynthesis to create electrical energy from light.
The Department of Energy has encouraged solar for years, yet some people consider it a waste of taxpayer dollars — but investing in renewable energy will not only create new jobs in the future, the energy itself is free. And, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it has become too costly to operate coal plants. While the price of natural gas has fallen to historic lows at $1.74 per Million Btu, it still adds an immense quantity of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. The government has a responsibility to fight against climate change, and encouraging more solar power is an important part of this.
Like every technology, there are potential drawbacks. When solar panels reach the end of their cycle they have to be disposed of. Since they have toxic and dangerous compounds that could lead to unintended health concerns, it is important to prepare now for appropriate ways to dispose of them. In a fire, solar panels could release toxic chemicals that are dangerous if inhaled. So we need to advance research on alternatives that are even safer than silicon-based solar cells, such as the perovskite photovoltaic technologies mentioned above.
Like any other type of energy, solar power has its flaws, but far more people die from pollution caused by burning fossil fuels — and even more will die as a result of climate. I think investing in solar energy is a step forward to help us become more sustainable. The more solar energy we bring into our community, the less harmful emissions we are putting into our air and the more we are helping to fight climate change… we need to stop burning fossil fuels and invest in the future.
To create a brighter, cleaner, healthier environment for our community, solar is the way to go!
Emely is a senior at Liberty High School. “I enjoy singing in the school
choir and playing guitar. After high school I plan to go to college
to study science. The inspiration for this essay was learning about
solar energy and not seeing many solar panels in our community.”
Editor’s Note: This essay is an updated version of what Emely presented at the Speak Out in September 2020, part of Touchstone’s Festival Unbound.