It has been a constant argument on whether or not replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy would actually fulfill the needs of our country in the near future. Fossil fuels are a form of nonrenewable energy, meaning that we have a very limited supply of them before we drain our sources entirely. They earn their name from literally being made from the remains of ancient plants and animals that exist in a liquid form. The creation of fossil fuels is also an age-long process since it happens below the very surface of our planet, where intense heating and extreme pressure turn these remains into a liquid full of energy stored in assorted molecular forms. While there is quite a bit of energy stored in this type of fuel, it releases a lot of carbon dioxide once it is burned. Since carbon dioxide is a known greenhouse gas and much of it has been reentering our atmosphere, it has been gradually increasing the temperature of our planet since the discovery of oil back during the Industrial Revolution, and now it is causing major issues within our once habitable environment. These include melting ice caps, rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather, the warming and poisoning of our oceans, and of course a rise in global temperature. These issues have also been causing the diverse species on our planet to either become endangered or even die our completely (NASA). While renewable resources have now shown signs of a better future with energy, many companies and lobbyists have been pushing for skepticism on the issue with the claim that there is not enough evidence to back climate change despite the fact that many world renowned scientists have all seen the facts and agree that global warming indeed exists. It is because of these petty disagreements that the effort for becoming dependent on renewable energy has struck debates in the past 3 decades. One of the many arguments that will be brought into focus on this topic is the financial costs and tedious research that are required to make make the big change, while stating that it will be more expensive to abandon coal and oil for something as simple as solar energy. However, I believe that solar energy will not only cost less in the long run, but is also will have more reliability than fossil fuels. With many recent innovations coming out in solar energy, a future of affordable and renewable energy may not be as far away as people like to believe.
To understand the real expenses and long term effects of fossil fuels, we first have to look at the very history and importance fossil fuels played in our development. While coal has been used by the Hopi Indians since the 1300s to use for heating and cooking, it was not until 1679 that it was discovered by French explorers and eventually turned towards commercialization. According to the United States Department of Energy, “It was in the 1880s when coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories. Long after homes were being lighted by electricity produced by coal, many of them continued to have furnaces for heating and some had stoves for cooking that were fueled by coal. Today we [still] use a lot of coal, primarily because we have a lot of it and we know where it is in the United States.” Coal eventually became a major source of energy during the Industrial revolution, and as stated before coal is still in use today. Oil on the other hand, was not drilled for until 1859 when the first American oil well was discovered in Pennsylvania (U.S. Department of Energy). For about 50 or so years, however, coal still took up the much of our energy consumption. Nonetheless, with the invention of the automobile and many other oil powered machinery such as the airplane, oil began to take up a good portion of our energy consumption by the end of World War II. By this time, fossil fuels not only began to be sold to power our cars and help us create petroleum based products but it has even took up the majority of our energy consumption today. However, that our global temperature began to gradually rise over our normal temperature due to the excess amount of carbon dioxide that entered our atmosphere. When scientists realized the trouble we put ourselves into, it was then that we began to search for more sources of energy.
While the majority of the building blocks that eventually created solar energy go as far back as 1839 with the research of the photovoltaic effect, the first solar cell was not patented until it was tested and refined in 1946 by scientist Russell Ohl (Bell Telephone Labor Inc). However, because the further development of solar cells turned into a gradual process, prices remained very high. At that point in time, the only groups of people who were willing to pay huge sums of money for solar energy with the guarantee of quality were mostly government space programs such as NASA, so they could be used to power satellites and other projects that they were blasting into the unknown. Beyond space research, solar energy was outside of usage of the public because of the expenses behind their development. What use would the common family have with a power source they could not use to power their homes or cars? When the 1970s approached, the cost for electricity was projected to be $100 per watt by 2000 if a change did not take place. It was because of this that the push for solar power and other forms of alternative energy such as wind or hydroelectric power began to look more attractive to businesses and the public. The hopes of these types of electricity productions to be commercialized became more prominent by the 1970s and 1980s, and with the right adjustments to the manufacturing process, solar cells and panels became significantly cheaper by $20 per watt (Perlin, p. 53). The most recent reason for its development, however, is because of our issues involving climate change. With fossil fuels slowly becoming more scarce and cranking up the heat within the past century, there has been more incentive to develop solar cells because of how easy it is to acquire access to sunlight on our planet. By harnessing a resource as plentiful as our own sunlight, we would have energy that would last us for as long as our sun lives, which if you do not know will last for the next five billion years! Fossil fuels, on the other hand, would take millennia to come back in large quantities because of the extreme heat and pressure needed to turn plant and animal remains into a liquid form. Other than our ocean water, the second most common material that is found to cover most of the surface area of our planet are trees. So naturally, with trees being capable of creating its own fuel through the means of photosynthesis, it is no big surprise that recent solar inventions were inspired by the natural processes that support trees!
About 5 years ago, the “Bionic Solar Leaf” was created and since then had been going through further development. This thin “leaf” was created by Daniel Nocera and a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was not only inspired by the way a leaf absorbs sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide in order to produce a sustainable amount of energy, but was also created with the thought of harnessing that power in mind. As stated in the original report, “For a synthetic material to realize the solar energy conversion function of the leaf, the light-absorbing material must capture a solar photon to generate a wireless current that is harnessed by catalysts, which drive the four electron/hole fuel-forming water-splitting reaction under benign conditions and under 1 sun (100 mW/cm2) illumination” (Nocera). While “Commercializing the technology will likely take years” (Martin), it provides an obvious example of future technology that will be of use to America when the time to switch is upon us. Not only does it use solar energy and water to get its energy, but it even takes carbon dioxide and turns into useable energy. This means that we could use technology such as this to reverse much of the damage we’ve caused through burning oil and coal. By taking the ancient carbon dioxide that should have never been released in the first place, we could put it back to use in the most harmless way! However, if you’re more interested in a renewable resource that is already going towards commercialization, look no further than your own homes!
When SolarCity and Tesla decided to collaborate to make a change in the energy market, they came up with a neat idea to create small solar panels to not only mimic the shingles of a roof but also power an entire house! Tesla and SolarCity have even gone further to make the glass of the solar cells mimic average roof tiles. It’s been discussed even further that, in comparison to the average roof replacement plus the average cost of paying for electricity throughout the year, the roof will be cheap and very affordable in that aspect. The solar tiles are guaranteed to last for 30 years and are even promised an infinite warranty (Tesla). This not only means that you can get your roof replaced if you’re having issues with your power but it also means that you’ll be self-sufficient when it comes to paying electricity bills! You won’t have to worry about paying your electric company to keep your house running if you produce your own! Now, in order to tie this together I’ll have to explain a current problem in our country.
With blackouts being on the rise since 2000 (InsideEnergy), it’s clear that either our entire power grid needs to be replaced or we need to have our own source of energy to go off of. This is due to the wear and tear of time ever since their initial creation in 1934 (InsideEnergy). Repairing the entire power grid would prove to be expensive however, especially when there’s no promise of it to remain functional in the future. Powering our own houses, however, would prove to be more beneficial. Not only will it hand off responsibility to us, but it will save us money in the meantime. The government would be able to save money as well because all that money that use to go towards the power grids can go towards fixing our roads or even towards more important issues such as education or healthcare! Even if we decide to maintain our power grid, an invention such as the bionic leaf could not only reverse the damage we’ve caused but could result in not having to depend on oil or coal for energy. Even so, many other places that are unable to maintain a solar roof could use an invention such as the bionic solar leaf in order to get the power they need! Both solutions will help us in the end, not only with cleaning up our own mess but to help us avoid a future energy crisis! So, what am I getting at?
Solar power is our answer to a reliable resource for energy, we just need to give it a chance rather than be afraid of making a big change! Denying the potential of solar energy or even the existence of our problems will only make our planetary crisis even worse. Once we run out of fossil fuels, we won’t be able to find any for a long time since they take centuries to be created in large enough quantities to gather. Cutting down our national forests won’t be the answer either since it will just make problems worse for the environment and powering our country. Not only that but even the process of separating oil into usable forms of fuel takes more tedious work than making solar panels in the first place. Renewable energy sources such as solar energy would not only provide us with many job openings but would also save our country millions of dollars once the plans get brought into action. The costs of switching won’t be cheap, but will be much cheaper in the long term since we would no longer have to mine and drill for coal and oil. This would not only accomplish providing jobs to the unemployed but would even help our effort to clean up the planet and even our atmosphere! A huge switch would decrease the environmental problems that we’ve been avoiding for so long, such as the endangerment and even extinction of wildlife and the destruction of our oceans and polar ice caps. With America being one of the biggest polluters out of other nations, this would dramatically decrease the pollution that affects our air and even the rising of our temperatures. The best way to get to it? If you have the money the next time you need to replace your roof, go for the solar roof! Don’t have the money and yet you still want to make a change? Save up the money to invest in the solar roof. Contrary to popular belief, even the smallest bit can help in the long run; Especially when it groups up over the period of many years. While solar energy shows so much promise in our energy market, it’s going to take others to step up to the challenge of saving our planet before anything gets better.
- Turner, John A. “A realizable renewable energy future.” Science 285.5428 (1999): 687-689. To discuss the effects of Global warming
- Nocera, D. G. (2012, April 4). The Artificial Leaf. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ar2003013 To explain the bionic leaf
- “Solar Roof | Tesla.” Tesla, Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. <https://www.tesla.com/solarroof>. To explain the solar roof coming from the source
- “Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet: Evidence.” Nasa.gov. NASA, n.d. Web. <https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/>. To use government facts on global warming
- Martin, Richard. “A Big Leap for an Artificial Leaf.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 07 June 2016. Web. 06 May 2017. <https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601641/a-big-leap-for-an-artificial-leaf/>. To quote an interview with Nocera.
- Wirfs-Brock, Jordan. “Power Outages On The Rise Across The U.S.” Inside Energy, Corporation of Public Broadcasting, 13 Mar. 2016, insideenergy.org/2014/08/18/power-outages-on-the-rise-across-the-u-s/. Accessed 5 May 2017. To bring up statistics with blackouts and power grid failures.
- Kane, Mark. “Consumer Reports Crunches The Numbers On Tesla’s Solar Roof.” Inside EVs, Consumer Reports, insideevs.com/consumer-reports-crunches-the-numbers-on-teslas-solar-roof/. Accessed 5 May 2017. To discuss the costs and the worth of these solar roofs in comparison to their normal counterparts.
- Ohl, Russell S. Light-sensitive electric device. Bell Telephone Labor Inc, assignee. Patent US2402662 A. 25 June 1946. Print.
- Perlin, John. From space to Earth: the story of solar electricity. Ann Arbor, MI: Aatec Publications, 1999. Print.
- “A Brief History of Coal Use in the United States.” DOE – Fossil Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, fossil.energy.gov/education/energylessons/coal/coal_history.html. Accessed 19 May 2017.
- “Our History.” Our History | Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, energy.gov/fe/about-us/our-history. Accessed 19 May 2017.