The energy mix in the United States has shifted significantly in recent years. Wind and solar energy capacity has skyrocketed and continues on an upward trend. Wind energy generated 7% of the total electricity in the United States in 2019. Since 2008, the use of coal-fired power plants has declined, as the use of renewable energy and natural gas has increased. Wind energy is an excellent way to reduce carbon emissions, but what happens when the wind turbine blades wear out? Is there a looming waste disposal issue?
Looming Waste Management Issues
The design life of wind turbines is about 20 to 25 years. The longest wind turbine blade to date is 350 feet, almost the length of a football field. Although certain parts of wind turbines can be relatively easily recycled, others are not designed for recyclability. In particular, wind turbine blades present the biggest waste management challenge, but researchers from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in partnership with Arkema Inc. are making progress in this area.
Most wind turbine blades are currently constructed with composite material infused with a thermoset resin, which makes them highly durable to withstand storms and the elements. Unfortunately, thermoset plastics are almost impossible to recycle, so the blades do not have much scrap value and are not very appealing to recyclers. Therefore, many spent turbine blades are piling up in landfills, although some reinforced plastic blades are downcycled into cement products.
Promising Turbine Blade Research
The good news is that researchers have developed a blade out of thermoplastic resin (instead of thermoset resin) that is low-cost, lightweight, and seems to be recyclable. If the new blade also proves to be durable, this could be a gamechanger for the offshore and onshore wind industry. Lower costs also could help boost wind energy deployment, reducing the use of fossil fuels. A lightweight blade is easier to transport and uses less fuel. It also seems easier to recycle and uses less energy in the manufacturing process. These are all wins for the environment and the wind energy industry.
Technological advances have transformed the solar energy industry in recent years. Solar panels are significantly more efficient, producing more power in the same amount of space. Meanwhile, prices continue to fall, reducing the cost of solar electricity.
But with the introduction of new technologies comes uncertainty. Which solar panels are the most reliable and durable? What technology creates the least amount of pollution in the manufacturing process? Do panel manufacturers use recycled components or provide solar panel recycling options at the end of life? Let’s explore some of these critical issues in the pursuit of the best solar panels on the market.
We compared the efficiency, warranty, environmental performance, and more of the following solar panel models in the comparison chart below.
U.S. solar generation capacity is soaring. Construction began recently on the Samson Solar Energy Center, the largest planned solar energy farm in the United States. When completed, the solar farm will have 1,013 megawatts of generating capacity. This solar farm will be considerably larger than the 690 MW Gemini solar project with battery storage under construction outside of Las Vegas, which had been the largest project in the U.S.
Invenergy is developing the Samson solar farm, which will span three counties in Northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border. The project will create an estimated 600 construction jobs and $450 million in tax revenue and landowner lease payments. Developers are planning construction in five phases, with a 2023 expected completion date.
Texas is a leader in renewable energy production in the U.S. due to its excellent solar and wind energy resources. It leads in the nation in installed wind energy capacity and trails California for installed solar energy capacity.
Who will purchase the energy?
Corporations have already signed virtual Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for Samson’s solar electricity. “The Samson Solar Energy Center is the latest example of what can be achieved when companies and utilities seek an innovative partner to meet their sustainability goals and invest in a clean energy future,” said Ted Romaine, senior vice president of origination at Invenergy.
The largest share, 500 MW, will go to AT&T, which says it will be the biggest corporate U.S. solar deal to date. This agreement is a big step forward in AT&T’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2035. The corporation’s multi-facet plan includes transitioning to a low-emissions fleet, increasing energy efficiency, and purchasing carbon offsets.
In addition, Honda has an agreement for 200 MW, McDonald’s for 160 MW, and Google for 100 MW. AT&T, Google, and Honda have already been leaders in renewable energy use. According to the Renewable Energy Buyer’s Alliance Top U.S. Energy Buyers of 2019, Google ranks second, AT&T third, McDonald’s ninth, and Honda tenth.
Tech giants have helped lead the way with sourcing renewable energy, due in part to consumer and investor concern over dirty energy powering data centers.
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Energy Writer
Many homeowners want to install a solar electric system but don’t know if their roof gets enough sunshine. The return on investment from the solar panels and the positive environmental benefits are highly dependent on the energy production.
Here’s the essential information to determine if a house has ample solar potential.
Solar energy systems generate the most electricity when the panels are pointed south. If the orientation of the roof is slightly off from due south, it won’t have a dramatic impact on the total energy production.
If the solar panels face east, they will generate more energy in the morning. Conversely, if the panels face west, the system will have excellent afternoon production but little in the morning. It is not recommended to install panels on a north-facing roof (in the northern hemisphere).
To determine the energy loss due to orientation, go to the PVWatts website and edit the azimuth field.
Shade from Trees and Buildings
Although trees are wonderful, they can have a negative impact on solar production. Buildings and trees located east, west, and especially south can hinder electricity output. The most crucial window is the mid-day hours, between 9 am and 3 pm. Thus, obstructions on the south side of the home can have the biggest impact. If trees are an issue, trimming certain branches might be highly beneficial.
Evergreen trees can have the biggest impact on solar panels because they create shading throughout the year. Deciduous trees tend to not have leaves when the sun is lower in the sky during the cold weather months. When planting new trees, select shorter varieties or plant them on the north side of the home.
Image Credit: Sundog Solar
Do solar panels work on shaded roofs?
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Energy Writer
A big concern with large-scale solar farms is the impact on land use. Solar developers often site projects on agricultural land that is taken out of production. Also, the vegetation around solar panels needs to be maintained to prevent shading. In some cases, herbicides are used, contaminating waterways, and mowing generates pollution. If the developer applies gravel or plants turfgrass, the land has little wildlife value.
As the local food movement gains steam, isn’t it counterproductive to turn productive cropland into an energy plant? How can the solar energy industry embrace biodiversity while producing clean energy? Is dual use of a solar site possible?
Solar farms can be managed to increase pollinator habitat, improve soil quality, and even for livestock grazing. Innovative land management approaches enable solar projects to serve multiple purposes, benefitting the local economy. Keeping honeybees, grazing sheep, and even cultivating mushrooms can all complement a solar energy project.
Native Wildflowers Boost Pollinator Habitat
Researchers with the Argonne National Laboratory are examining the economic benefits of establishing native vegetation, including wildflowers and prairie grasses, on nearby cropland. Native vegetation attracts crucial critters like bees, flies, bats, birds, wasps, moths, and butterflies, which can be beneficial to crop yields.
Researchers with the Argonne National Laboratory are examining the economic benefits of establishing native vegetation on nearby cropland, including wildflowers and prairie grasses. A diverse array of native plants benefits wildlife diversity, especially pollinators. These crucial critters include bees, flies, bats, birds, wasps, moths, and butterflies, and can be beneficial to crop yields.
Image Credit: Danny Piper of Sundog Solar
By Sarah Lozanova, Clean Energy Writer
If you don’t already own an electric vehicle (EV), you might soon. Most automakers are ramping up the development and production of electrified models, including SUVs and pick-up trucks. EV ownership is predicted to skyrocket in the next few years. Because these vehicles need to charge, it is important to figure out the best approach.
When considering an EV purchase, it is wise to consider how you will charge it. The length of time it takes to charge depends on the battery capacity and the speed of the charger. It takes longer to charge a car with a larger or more discharged battery — or from a slower charging device. The way that many EV owners charge their vehicles is similar to how they charged their cell phones before quick chargers became widespread. They give the EV a full charge overnight and top it off as needed throughout the day.
Ideally, owners can charge their electric vehicle at home in a garage or driveway. This is typically the most convenient, especially when using slower units. Let’s explore the different types of chargers available.
Level 1 Chargers
These devices work from a standard 120-volt wall outlet and all EVs come with a standard home connector kit. However, Level 1 chargers require more time to charge the vehicle than higher-volt alternatives. Many EV drivers use this option if they are not in a hurry to charge because it doesn’t require an investment in additional equipment or electrical upgrades. It can also be convenient on the road because it requires no more than a standard electrical outlet.
Level 2 Chargers
For faster home charging than the standard wall units, some EV owners upgrade to Level 2 chargers. These units run off of 240-volt currents, allowing the vehicle to charge in several hours. From an electrical perspective, the chargers require the same voltage as many electric ranges, dryers, and water heaters.
Image Credit: Ivan Radic
By Sarah Lozanova, Clean Energy Writer
Pliny the Elder was the first to write that home is where the heart is, but many older homes are drafty and have cold floors and uneven temperatures that can chill an environmentally aware heart. Do you remember the nursery rhyme about a cold, old house where even the mouse is cold? The good news for the mouse and anyone else concerned is that there are many weatherization products on the market to make homes more comfortable and energy efficient. Insulation is one of them.
You might think that any insulation product that lasts decades and saves a decent amount of energy would be green. Unfortunately, many of the home insulation products on the market contain potent greenhouse gases or release chemicals, degrading indoor air quality.
Whenever possible, choose insulation products that:
Why Is Home Insulation Important?
Home heating and cooling are responsible for nearly half of all home energy use. Insulation is important because heat flows from warmer to cooler spaces until there isn’t a temperature difference. In the winter, heat flows from heated spaces in homes to unheated attics, basements, garages and the outdoors. In the cooling season, heat flows from outside the home to the interior. Insulation stops the flow of heat.
Image Credit: Ryo Chijiiwa
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar PV Writer
Residents are buying generators and battery storage systems in anticipation of outages.
Millions of California residents are bracing themselves for wildfire season’s peak. Bone-dry air and high winds are a recipe for disaster—one that brings catastrophic losses and sudden evacuations. Sadly, some of the most destructive fires in the state’s history were likely ignited by sparks from utility lines and exacerbated by heat and dryness.
Utility shut-offs to prevent wildfires affect millions
There are concerns that the state’s power grid was neither adequately designed nor maintained for this intensely dry season fueled by climate change. To help safeguard communities, utility companies have implemented massive preemptive power shut-offs when the risk of wildfires is highest. These preventive measures help avoid costly property damage and save lives. However, the power shut-offs are widely criticized because these disruptions affect the daily lives of millions. Though short outages are inconvenient, many of these pre-emptive shut-offs have lasted days—or even weeks.
Blackouts upend daily life
Lengthy power outages are severely disruptive. In many cases, residents and business owners were unaware that their power would be turned off and were left unprepared. Without electricity, many houses do not have functional telecommunications, internet, refrigeration, air conditioning, medical equipment, hot water, or cooking. Businesses were forced to shut their doors during the power outages, leaving the community without essential services.
Image Credit: James Brooks
Californians Look to Home Batteries as Backup - Solar Energy
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar PV Writer
There is now enough installed solar energy capacity in the U.S. to power 13.5 million homes, and this amount is expected to double in the next five years. The solar energy industry is part of a very dynamic market. Many factors — including government policies, fossil fuel costs, solar energy technology advances, commodity prices, and even public awareness of the climate crisis — impact solar energy deployment across the globe.
What’s in store for the year ahead? Let’s explore some trends in solar energy to better understand what is on tap for 2020.
Solar Battery Prices Are Falling
Solar energy is an intermittent energy source. This means that solar panels produce power when the sun is shining and not when it isn’t. Energy storage allows the solar system to supply power when the sun has set or in cloudy weather, expanding the capabilities of solar energy systems.
There are two main types of solar batteries: lead-acid batteries (like you have in your car) and lithium-ion batteries. The latter is far more advanced, longer-lasting, and requires less maintenance. Not surprising, lithium-ion batteries have a higher upfront cost, but the price has been decreasing significantly in recent years. The cost of lithium-ion battery storage fell 35 percent from the first half of 2018 to now (December 2019) and 76 percent since 2012. This downward price trend is good news for renewable solar energy in 2020 — and it’s likely to continue.
Natural gas plants are often used to meet peak energy loads because they can more easily be turned on and off than coal or nuclear power plants. Lower costs make it easier for intermittent renewable energy sources — such as wind and solar — to be cost-competitive with dispatchable fossil-fired power plants. Price decreases in utility-scale battery banks now make solar plus energy storage competitive in many areas on price alone. Battery banks can make it unnecessary to fire up power plants during times of peak demand, reducing fossil fuel consumption. The greater the capabilities of solar, the less attractive and financially viable these peaker power plants become.
On the residential side, more homeowners are relying on solar systems with battery storage for emergency power during grid outages than ever before. This is an especially attractive option in areas prone to extended power outages due to natural disasters or with inadequate utility infrastructure, like Puerto Rico.
Image Credit: Sundog Solar
Trends in Solar Energy - Clean Energy Writer
By Sarah Lozanova, Solar Panel Writer
The U.S. has more than 2 million solar installations. This means there are tens of millions of solar panels on roofs and racking systems. Solar energy is fantastic for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy independence, but what happens at the end of the panel’s 30-year lifespan?
There is a looming waste management issue as solar systems age and will eventually be decommissioned. Is the U.S. prepared for large-scale solar panel recycling?
“Installations two decades ago are nearing their end of life, and that becomes a challenge for the waste industry,” says Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Because it takes a long time to develop technology and policy and solutions to dealing with end-of-life products, this is something we need to start to address today.”
According to Heath, solar panels could comprise more than 10 percent of global electronic waste by 2050.
Solar panel recycling presents an economic opportunity and can spawn new industries. A study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels. There are also repair and reuse opportunities for solar panels that fail prematurely. These repaired solar panels are often sold at a discount, creating opportunities in new markets where affordability is an issue.
What Parts of the Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?
Glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon comprise 99 percent of the silicon-based solar panels.
Image Credit: Nichole McClure
Freelance renewable energy writer