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Now that we are here, what do we know?
“Solar”, regardless the generally considered meaning of it, as PV, also includes Wind, Ocean Currents, Hydroelectric and Solar Thermal, to name the primary forms we can harness to supply our needs.
Solar Thermal also has two distinct forms; one for the heating of water for residential and commercial needs, relatively common throughout much of the world and an idea that died during the 80s here in the U.S.; and another, super heating a fluid medium to spin a turbine producing electricity, the giant often circular plants full of mirrors and a central tower, made notable in Spain, Australia & the Mojave Desert of California.
The growth of Trees, Plants and Crops are fueled by organic “photo voltaic” energy generators in the chlorophyll of their leaves. Phytoplankton in the oceans, are microscopic “photo voltaic animals”, who capture the sun’s energy and provide the basic energy by which almost all other life in the ocean feeds itself.
These original “solar” energy production mechanisms are the roots through which the dream of photo voltaic technology was conceived. In fact, Coal, Oil & Natural Gas are even stored “solar” energy, the result of millions of years of the sun’s energy being accumulated by plants and animals, and concentrated into a much higher density daily dose of sunshine.
It’s why Oil, Natural Gas and Coal are commonly called “Fossil Fuels”.
When we burn Fossil Fuels, we are simply releasing millions of years of solar radiation at that instant of use. There are drawbacks obviously, that counter all the general benefits the use of fossil fuels have given to us.
Why is Carbon important in the discussion?
The breaking of the carbon bonds, through processes common to us, forms carbon dioxide, mostly released into the atmosphere which artificially adjusts the natural chemical concentration of both the air and water.
The reason water needs to be consider; everything must remain in equilibrium, the oceans are becoming more acidic as carbon dioxide levels increase in the atmosphere and naturally enter the oceans and surface waters to maintain balance. Carbonic acid is nothing more alarming than carbon dioxide in solution, i.e., water. At certain levels it is useful to external skeleton creatures; crustaceans and corals, as carbon is the building block of hard, protective outer skins, just as we use carbon fiber to strengths our protective products.
However, the percentage of available hydrogen ions (H+), what pH measures through a designation, as being an acid or base liquid, has implications on the chemical processes that allow for their formation.
A base, is nothing more than a higher concentration of the hydroxide ions (OH-), than the other “half” of a split water (H2O) molecule, hydrogen ion (H+). And saying, “the ocean is becoming more acidic” is only a very diminutive measure on a very small scale, not that a person entering the ocean will be burned or “melted” like in a horror story, however, it does have scientifically demonstrated implications upon the ability of marine life, both plants and animals, to form their protective shells.
The effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and carbonic acid levels in the oceans are the general basis over the arguments whether climate changes is natural or artificial process through the collective activities of man. And I care not to enter that debate here, although I do believe our activities are adversely affecting the environment and weather patterns.
20 years ago, in my notably conservative engineering education at Clarkson University, it was well recognized and accepted carbon dioxide levels were increasing at a rate greater and exponentially in nature in stark contrast to historical dynamic fluctuations over the previous eons.
Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” release over 10 years later, was not shocking, breaking revelations of something that just happened overnight. The reaction to and the denials of, its authenticity and generally agreed upon acceptance by the scientific community, by vested interests and uneducated masses, notably in the US, however was extremely shocking to a significant portion of the world’s population.
The two significant generators of electrical energy, which do not fall within the category of “Solar” are nuclear and geothermal, although geothermal is generally considered to be renewable. The sun’s energy output neither increases or decreases geothermal activity. And similar to nuclear, the processes that makes it possible derives their origins from the birth of the universe or formation of our tiny solar system.
Tidal, another potential source, is dependent upon the gravitational effects of the Moon on the oceans. Maybe we could consider this “lunar” energy, but as of yet, there has been limited development of this resource. In essence, a dam would need to be constructed across the mouth of an ocean bay… opened as the tides rose, then closed an allowed to the water to exit through turbines when the tide was low. The Bay of Fundy in Canada, with its large tidal rises would be an ideal location, however the engineering to build it would be a very large feat of human prowess.
What are they types of electricity?
So back to “Solar” and specifically, photo voltaic conversion of our Sun’s daily supply of free, relatively diffuse energy.
The nature of the conversion process, requires activation of excitable elements, anchored to silicon wafers, connected one to one another by conductive metals.
The “excitation” of the elements, happening under a relatively specific wavelength of energy found within our overall solar energy “gift’ from the sun, causes electrons to become “released”. They then move in one direction, down pathways provided to them within the inner structure of a photo voltaic panel, thus able to be collected for our needs.
This effective, one direction movement of electrons is referred to as Direct Current (DC) electricity. It can be stored, chemically, as in batteries, but requires an energy conversion. Direct Current is also what most computers and televisions need, even though they are plugged into an alternating current outlet, a conversion happens within the device to DC.
The rotation of coiled conductors within a fixed magnetic field, through the application of outside energy, is the basis of almost all other electricity we generate. As it is the result of physical movement and is repeated cyclically, the movement of the electrons follows an oscillating waveform, referred to as Alternating Current or AC.
Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear, either “burn” or allow their fuel “to divide”, in order to heat water to steam. The steam, under intense pressure then turns the blades of the turbine, connected to coiled conductors which naturally resist movement inside the magnetic field.
Hydroelectric, Wind, Tidal and Ocean Current, use the movement of the fluid (water or air) to likewise rotate the resistant coils, in order to generate electricity. Electric turbines are the exact opposite of jet engines and hydro jets for some watercraft, but instead of burning fuel to push the air or water, they are using the air, water or steam to “push” the turbine around and around.
In conclusion to this part of the discussion, electricity that we need to power our lives, comes in two forms; Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). Both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on their intended use.
The means by which we obtain and produce our electricity, varies also. It is either current “Solar” measured across days and weeks, fossil “Solar” from the concentration of millions of years of the sun’s electromagnetic input, or it is nuclear and geothermal, both of which we have no influence on the “creation” of the fuel, only how we refine existing existing resources or access the natural source.
How we maximize the benefits, while minimizing the various disadvantages of each form of production, transmission and use of the two types of electricity is the focus of following discussions.
I will start off the discuss with the limitations of photo voltaic conversion of electromagnetic radiation into usable electricity. These limitations, in their own right can be overcome to a certain degree through maximizing design considerations during implementation; however, the trends I am seeing within the United States are inherently flawed, enhancing PV’s limitations, in contrast to minimizing its effects.