Barack Obama recently had solar panels fitted onto the roof of the White House in an effort to promote alternative energy and reduce the impact of harmful fossil fuels. While the panels on the White House will help improve the efficiency of the building, Obama has much bigger plans in store for solar energy, and is developing a plan for where to go from here. This plan includes commitments with major companies, such as Wal-Mart, and aims to not only decrease the carbon emissions from the U.S., but also to create more jobs as part of the workforce for this powerful alternative energy source. While not specified by Obama himself, there have been several recent advancements in solar energy that Obama could use to promote a greener America and prove that now is the time for this push to take place.
Carbon nano tubes are one of the ways in which this process can be done. These tubes are composed of carbon atoms that have been rolled together, and are very small in size. While these tubes can only distribute energy in the form of heat, the main benefit of these devices is that they can store this energy until needed, meaning that it can harness the power of solar energy when the sun is shining, and then release it whenever it is needed, even if there is no sun. This is made possible through the use of molecules known as “photoswitches,” which can store energy until a signal is sent that causes the energy to be released in the form of heat. There are obvious limitations to this technology, such as the lack of efficiency for electrical output, but the implications in terms of heat for this technology are diverse. This use of solar energy could not only provide heat for cooking food and keeping buildings warm through the cold months, but also for industrial purposes like heating chemicals and welding.
A team at Colorado University has also developed a toilet that converts human waste into biochar with energy generated from the sun. Biochar is a highly fertile form of soil that also gathers carbon dioxide, preventing it from escaping into the air. Aside from acting as soil, biochar can also be burned as a heat source, meaning that this toilet would serve many purposes in undeveloped countries that have problems with contamination of drinking water and energy resources. Current models are meant to serve up to a family of 6 people, and larger-scale versions are in the works as well.
Another innovation in the solar power realm is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which is located in Southern California. Opened in February of this year, this plant reportedly generates enough solar energy to power over 94,000 homes. This is the largest of five current solar projects in the United States, which in total are estimated to power over 250,000 homes through electricity generated from the sun, and 12 more projects of this nature have received funding from ARPA-E, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. A side benefit of these projects is job production. Aside from generating clean energy for the U.S., and thus reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions , these solar projects are estimated to produce thousands of jobs in industries that manufacture gears, mirrors, and steel. Plants such, as the one in Ivanpah, have shown where to go from here for the United States in regards to its development of solar energy; not only are carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions reduced, but jobs are created as well, which is a boost for the economy.
The market of road travel could be seeing the benefits of solar power as well. Onyx Solar, a Spanish-based company, is also looking into developing roadways and parking lots into an opportunity for solar energy to be generated. This company is developing solar panels that can be driven over and walked on, which would open up new locations for alternative energy to be generated. Up to 15 percent of all paved roadways in the U.S. are parking lots, so the inclusion of these solar-powered panels in just these areas would lead to a huge potential for green sources energy across the nation. The carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions related to cars and planes makes up a significant factor in the climate change equation, so the developments of solar energy could help to mitigate the damage.
Solar panels and related devices have also been dropping significantly in price as of late, which makes the availability of home-scale solar power more accessible to people worldwide. Google is even getting in on the game, with a challenge to design a more efficient power inverter that offers a reward of $1 million for first place. Considering the drop in pricing of many components, and the influence of corporate entities like Google and others, sources agree that solar energy is something to look into for the future. Barack Obama’s embrace of solar power signals an era of new development for these innovative technologies in the future. Those who ask where we should go from here, in terms of solar energy and alternative fuel source development, have a multitude of sources to look into for these answers.
By Joseph Chisarick