Solar Energy: The Basics

Solar-powered technology has come a long way since our childhood memories of calculators and digital wristwatches powered by tiny solar cells. In a few decades, solar power has become one of the main contenders for the world’s transition away from dirty energy and has an important role to play in the fight against the climate crisis.

Our existence and survival on the planet have always gone hand-in-hand with the sun. We rely on it to keep warm to grow crops and to dry food. We have also been using its energy to extract power through photovoltaic panels (PV) since the mid-1950s. Since then, the technology behind solar-powered electricity has advanced and it is hard to think about renewable energy without imagining rows of solar panels glinting in the sun.

Renewable, or clean energy, refers to energy that “comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished”. Given the ecological and climate crises we are facing by and large as a result of emissions of harmful gases from dirty energy sources, it is easy to see why so much research and development, not to mention hope, is being invested into the renewables sector.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory “More energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year.” That staggering statistic really highlights solar energy’s vast potential and explains why the sector is gaining so much traction.

Types of Solar Technology

When discussing solar energy we normally go straight to PV technology. These are panels that are placed on rooftops, in communities, solar farms and even floating on water. They are made of materials like silicon and have the ability to capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. While the silicon variation of PV technology is the one we are currently most used to seeing, there are other types of PV panels which are suited for different uses. Thin-film solar cells are, as the name suggests, very thin as well as flexible and lightweight making them useful for different surfaces and on portable applications. A lot of research is also being done to look at alternative materials for building solar cells including the possibility of using organic materials or anything that can increase efficiency and decrease costs and negative impacts of some of the components currently being used.

Some types of solar panel technology are also commonly used as part of a system to heat up the water in houses and other buildings. However, there is more to solar technology than just PV panels. Passive solar technology refers to how buildings and spaces are designed or retrofitted in order to allow energy from the sun to passively heat and cool spaces without using any electricity. Other types of mechanisms are used in something referred to as solar process heat. Here, commercial and industrial buildings benefit from installed systems that can heat water, provide ventilation or even cool spaces. 

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is when a large number of mirrors or lenses reflect sunlight onto a receiver which converts the light into heat. This heat powers an engine or steam turbine which is then connected to a power source that generates electricity.

Solar power in North Macedonia

North Macedonia enjoys an average of 280 sunny days and 1,500 hours of sun every year putting the country in a position to really benefit from well-planned and executed solar technology. Oddly enough, only 0.4% of the country’s energy came from solar in 2018 and the country’s plans for energy transition is still predominantly focused on hydropower. In its so-called “green scenario”, the energy strategy for North Macedonia plans for energy capacity from PV sources to grow to 1,400MW. In the past few months, the government has begun a tendering process to convert the Oslomej lignite coal plant into a 100MW solar farm and installed rooftop solar panels on 108 public buildings across the country from schools to clinics and fire stations.

The good, the bad, the future

Renewable energy is slowly leading the way globally. In 2018, more renewable energy capacity was installed than new fossil fuel ones and more than half of these projects were solar. Currently, about a third of the world’s energy capacity is in the renewables sector however this statistic also includes hydropower which, as we have discussed previously, is rather problematic. The renewables industry currently accounts for 11 million jobs worldwide, the bulk of which are in the solar industry. So solar powered technology emits no air pollutants or greenhouse gases, it is becoming more economically viable every year, its technological advancements are making it more efficient and effective, it creates lots of jobs and the sun ensures an unlimited source of energy to draw from. This would be the perfect energy source were it not for some very serious issues that need to be addressed.

If we are talking about solar farms we must take land use into consideration. For large amounts of energy to be produced, we need large surface areas. Unless well planned, with this can come habitat loss as well as the loss of agricultural land. The size of land needed depends on the technology used and the topography of the space. This can be tackled by using brownfields (urban areas that previously had development on them), abandoned mining sites, transportation paths or even certain types of bodies of water as farm locations. The biggest concerns with solar technology lie in the materials used for the production of components like PV panels and accompanying technology. As the demand for solar power grows, so will the demand for “environmentally sensitive” materials such as copper and lithium and cobalt for batteries used in energy storage. The extraction of these materials through mining has serious environmental and social implications, particularly from frontline communities living close to such sites. These issues have been highlighted by the anti-mining movement in the Southeast of the country in recent years. As solar panels reach their end-of-life after approximately 30 years we are then faced with issues relating to waste and disposal.

The issues surrounding the materials needed for renewable technology are vast and complex and will be discussed in a separate article in the near future but, in a nutshell, solar technology can be seen as an appropriate solution if responsible sourcing practices are taken into account, the technology is made more efficient, and if recycling of old materials becomes a part of policy.

Furthermore, we must keep in mind that simply replacing the processes from which we obtain our energy from dirty to renewable and not tackling the fundamental flaws in our current socio-economic system which is based on the unequal distribution of wealth, energy and resources and attributes success to GDP then we are bound to fall into the same traps further down the line.

Over the next few months, The Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how the climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.

The Authors: Simona Getova and JD Farrugia





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