Solar and Wind Update: Kit and Otherwise

Solar and Wind Update: Kit and Otherwise

Solar Panels on top of the EcoCenter. Photo by Brittany Sabol.
Our favorite advantages/disadvantages kits were created over five years ago, so I, the lucky intern, got the privilege of conducting research to see if any of the information in the Power Generation kits needed to be updated. With continuous research and discoveries, technology is constantly moving forward in leaps and bounds, so in half a decade, surely, our advantage and disadvantage cards would need a major upgrade.

I started off with solar power and after hours and hours of extensive research, the following update(s) were made to the kit:

Solar power cannot be stored in batteries. → Storing solar power in a battery is limited ( to only a few hours).

From looking at the kit alone, it may be a bit disheartening that only one of our cards changed. What have we been doing these past five years? Have we made no other improvements with solar power? Will we never learn how to fully harness the power of the sun? Are we doomed to use natural gas forever?

However, my dear EVs, I am proud to report that we have, in fact, made leaps and bounds in the field of solar power. The bulk of the information I found was just beyond a “fifth grade” comprehension level or unrelated to the kit. However, the bulk of you are not fifth graders and not confined to the education of our kits, so here are all of my findings on solar power progress that didn’t end up in the Solar Power kit.

Replacing Lead-Acid with Lithium Ion
I was shocked to find out that solar battery technology has existed since the 1970s. As I continued to do research, however, I started to understand why it wasn’t particularly mainstream. Early solar storage relied on something called lead-acid batteries which carried a whole baggage of extra problems. In recent years, however, the prices have become more and more affordable, so lithium ion batteries are finally pushing lead-acid batteries to the past. That being said, “affordable” as of now means $6,700 for one Tesla Powerwall 2.0 and about $6,000 more for installation costs.

One battery can also store only a few hours of electricity, so they’re mainly used for temporary backup power in the case of a blackout. To fully run your house on solar, you would need the space of maybe a two-car garage and tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, lithium itself is a limited resource, so despite all of the advancements we have already made, lithium ion batteries likely are not the final savior for the solar storage struggle.

Jobs Looking on the Bright Side
We’re also seeing a wonderful impact from the solar industry on American employment. In the job sector of power generation, solar employs double the amount of people from coal, gas, and oil combined. On top of that, “solar technician” is currently the fastest-growing career in the USA. It has also been found that building replacement solar and wind farms is cheaper than running most existing coal plants. By 2025, it’s estimated that this will be the case for nearly every single coal plant.

Speaking of wind, this is a great time for a meta-segue to the next form of energy I had enough time to do research for:

Just like solar power, my research led to the change in one card:
Wind power cannot be stored. → Wind power storage is still in development.
If that sounds vague, you might have an inkling of how my wind power storage went. Perhaps because most American citizens install solar panels and not wind turbines on their roofs, I found substantially less information on wind than solar power. Specifically, with the current state of storage technology in each respective energy type.

All I was able to find on wind power storage was that the United States Department of Energy is currently working with the National Laboratories to develop and improve storage technology for excess wind energy. There are also at least a few wind energy facilities in America that employ battery storage, but I could not find how commonplace that was.

Also, wind technician is the second fastest growing technology behind solar, so that’s pretty cool.

What About the Birds?
Besides the updates on the battery front, there are a lot of cool and novel designs for bladeless, bird-friendly wind turbines that are making the news. None of the designs are ubiquitous and fewer even are in America, but they still inspire great fascination for how wind turbines might look in the future. Some of these designs include what appears to be a coat rack with megaphones and slender white poles that seem straight from the pages of a science fiction novel. I fear for the power of copyright, so I’ll let Google assist you with pictures.
But What About Hydro and Natural Gas?
I can give you some fun fast facts:

· Providing 41% of all renewable power, hydroelectricity is the largest source of renewable power in the USA. (When you introduce natural gas to the arena, however, hydroelectricity’s 7% of total power still pales in comparison to natural gas’s 35%.)

· Interestingly, large hydroelectric dams do not qualify as “renewable” under RPS standards because of their devastating impacts on the environment.

· Our supply of natural gas is still estimated to last 90 years because we’ve discovered more natural gas reserves over time.

By Cynthia Pu, Education Intern

Cynthia in the classroom. Photo by Christine Zack