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  • Jacob Bourne

The Most Popular Form of Renewable Energy Could Use an Upgrade

Over 3% of electricity in the U.S. comes from solar photovoltaic panels and concentrated solar-thermal power. The most popular form of renewable energy in terms of sales, solar panels have dropped in cost by almost 70% since 2014, making solar an economically viable contender to fossil fuel-derived energy. However, despite solar’s potential in fighting climate change, there’s a push to make it greener, and for good reasons.

solar farm
Credit: Unsplash/American Public Power Association

Like wind energy, one primary issue with solar panels is that large arrays not placed on building structures take up much space and threaten habitats and biodiversity. According to Princeton University’s Net Zero America study, nine million more acres worth of ground-mounted solar panels are needed to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 in the U.S., as reported by Discover Magazine. That’s potentially an additional nine million acres of wildlife habitat and natural areas taken up by society’s growing thirst for energy.

One way to offset the impact of solar expansion is to devote the area under and around ground-mounted solar panel installations to native plant species. A study published in Environmental Entomology found that the addition of native, perennial flowing plants can help promote wild bee conservation, with the space underneath panels providing a haven. This is important as bees contribute about $500 billion annually to global food production and between $15 billion and $20 billion in the U.S. However, commercial beekeepers have reported average honey bee colony losses of 30% each winter since 2006.

The pairing of solar farms and native plantings could be a win-win. A study published in Scientific Reports suggests that locating solar panels in planted areas can increase energy efficiency.

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Another way to make solar greener is to change the panels themselves and how they’re produced. The manufacturing of solar panels can involve fossil fuel burning and the use of toxic chemicals, contributing to environmental degradation, and climate change, albeit to a lesser degree.

But better solar technology could be on its way. A project called LIGHT-CAP just won 3.18 million euros from the European Union to improve the harvesting, conversion and storage of solar energy.

The project will involve four years of research using nanotechnology to combine energy-converting solar panels and energy-storing batteries into one device. Part of the innovation will include using more sustainable and abundant materials such as nanoparticles based on carbon, oxygen and common metals versus ones considered rare as are currently employed. With these changes also comes the potential for increased storage capacity.

The goal is more efficient and sustainable solar energy harvesting, conversion and storage, and is part of the EU’s aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.


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