Photovoltaic Cells, Solar Power, and LEDs

Most of the world’s energy can go back to our sun. Every day we are heated by its electromagnetic rays, and plants use the sun’s energy to make sugars and ultimately proteins and other good things to eat. Fossil fuels were also once made from these plant and other organisms that relied on the sun’s energy millions of years ago. Today, humans can convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity, through solar thermal and solar photovoltaic systems.

SOLAR THERMAL OR PHOTOVOLTAIC?

Solar panels, also called solar thermal, convert sunlight to heat and then heat to electricity. Photovoltaic cells, or solar cells, convert sunlight directly into electric current by way of carefully-engineered semiconductor materials.

Though solar photovoltaics are more efficient converters of sunlight, they are also more expensive.

As of May 2011, the world’s largest solar power plant is a concentrating solar thermal power plant in the Mohave desert in California. Solar Energy Generating Systems has a capacity of 310 megawatts and uses parabola-shaped reflective troughs to concentrate electromagnetic radiation.

The world’s largest solar photovoltaic plant is probably the Sarnia Solar Project in Ontario, Canada. It has a capacity of roughly 80 megawatts.

HOW SOLAR THERMAL WORKS

Sunlight heats a design element (water, air, chemical fluids), and that thermal energy is transmitted for other applications, such as heating water, heating space, or generating electricity. In solar thermal power plants, sunlight heats a specialized fluid, which in turn heats water into steam, which can run turbines and produce electricity.

Solar thermal power plants use concentrators that bounce the sunlight off elliptical mirrors to a central tube, in which the specialized fluid lies.

HOW PHOTOVOLTAICS WORK

Photovoltaic cells are made of specialized diodes. Electrons (natural components of atoms) in the photovoltaic cells absorb light, which excites them to a state where they can be conducted as electrical current. This difference in energy, between the valence band (the state of a normal electron staying around its home atom) to the conduction band (electron free to move between atoms) is called the band gap.

Solar photovoltaic farm in Indonesia. Photo by Chandra Marsono.

Well-engineered photovoltaics have a band gap that coincides with the energies of as broad a spectrum of light as possible, to convert the maximum amount of the sunlight into electricity.

As sunlight energy pops electrons into the conduction band and away from their home atoms, an electric field is produced. The negatively-charged electrons separate from the positively-charged “holes” they leave behind, so that when electrons are freed into the conduction band, they move as electric current in the electric field, electricity.

PHOTOVOLTAICS ARE MADE OF SPECIALIZED MATERIALS

An ever-expanding variety of semiconductor materials can be used to make solar cells; universities and companies worldwide are researching these options, from special bio-plastics to semiconductor nanocrystals. Nonetheless, the photovoltaic cells available today require precise manufacturing conditions and are therefore far more expensive to produce than solar panels.

Silicon has to be processed under clean room conditions — carefully regulated atmospheres — to remove impurities and prevent introducing contaminants, both of which can change the band gap. Thin film-based photovoltaics require special production methods, like chemical vapor deposition. Semiconductor processing also uses strong acids and often dangerous chemicals for etching.

Today, commercially-sold cells are made from purified silicon or other crystalline semiconductors like cadmium telluride or copper indium gallium selenide.

WHERE DO WE GET THE STARTING MATERIALS?

Silicon is plentiful in the Earth’s crust. Cadmium is a readily available but highly toxic heavy metal, as is arsenic, another chemical used in some cells. As tellurium demand is only recently rising in response to solar demand, it’s unknown what the global supply is for this unusual element but it may be quite abundant. Photovoltaics are a lively area of research, and the future production and environmental costs of starter materials, production, and pollution are difficult to predict.

California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan produced the most photovoltaics in 2009. However, that year, 58 percent of photovoltaics were imports, primarily from Asian countries like China, Japan, and the Philippines.

LED TECHNOLOGY: MORE THAN HEADLAMPS

Photovoltaic cells work in the opposite direction of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. LEDs are used interchangeably with other lighting, like light bulbs. However, LED’s work in a completely different manner, far closer to the way photovoltaics work.

Click here see a bar chart comparing how much energy is used by various light sources.

LEDs absorb energy in the form of electricity, exciting electrons into the conduction band. When the electrons in the semiconductor material drop back into the valence band from the conduction band, they emit energy in the form of photons, or electromagnetic radiation.

It’s a highly efficient process because energy isn’t wasted on producing heat, which happens with standard tungsten filament bulbs. LEDs also last a much longer time as they do not have filaments to burn out, and because they are very small and several units are used to replace one large traditional lamp, they do not all burn out at once. That makes LEDs a good choice for stoplights or other safety critical applications.

 

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Thermodynamics and Thermal Energy

Thermodynamics is the study of how energy moves and changes form, usually by way of heat, as suggested by the components of its name: thermo-dynamics. Its laws and equations help to predict what could happen in various situations, based on the temperature, pressure, materials, and shape of a system.

Thermodynamics tells us how to calculate the ultimate temperature of a refrigerator or how much energy we can get out of a steam engine. Thermodynamics can also be applied to chemistry and the world on an atomic level, predicting which compounds are stable at specific temperatures and pressures. Thermodynamics explains why diamonds form naturally and spontaneously from carbon-based compounds deep inside the Earth, but they cannot form spontaneously here on the surface.

Thermodynamics relies on the idea that energy is conserved, even if it is transferred from or to a system to its surroundings through heat, changes in momentum, or other forms of energy.

 

TEMPERATURE AND HEAT

Heat and thermal energy are directly related to temperature. We can’t see individual atoms vibrating in solids, liquids, and gases, but we can feel their kinetic energies as temperature. Atoms in solids, liquids, and gases do vibrate. If they didn’t, they would be at absolute zero, a theoretical state of zero thermal energy at ­-459.67 Fahrenheit.

When there’s a difference between the temperature of the environment and a system within it, thermal energy is transferred between them as heat. Something doesn’t have heat. Instead, as an object or system gains or loses heat, it increases or decreases its thermal energy.

Adjacent objects that exhibit different temperatures will spontaneously transfer heat to try to reach the same temperature as each other, or equilibrium. However, how much energy it takes to change the temperature of an object is based on what its made of, a property called heat capacity or thermal capacity.

Water has a higher heat capacity than steel, for example. An empty pot on the stove takes almost no time to get to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, or the boiling temperature of water. A pot with some water in it will take far much longer to reach the same temperature, because water needs to absorb more energy — per weight, per degree — to gain the same number of degrees as metal. (Even though the vaporization temperature of metal is far, far higher than the water’s).

 

THERMAL ENERGY STORAGE: A SOURCE OF POWER

Thermal energy storage exploits the difference in temperature between a system and the environment. In the late 1800s, Americans used thermal energy storage by cutting blocks of lake ice during the winter and storing them underground packed in insulating wood shavings. When the summer rolled around, they retrieved that stored ice to make food cold, exploiting the difference in temperature to force thermal energy out of the food and into the ice.

Thermal energy storage can also happen in the other direction. Electricity or other forms of energy can be used to heat various materials, which are stored in insulated containers. Later, when the energy is needed, the hot materials can heat water into steam, and that steam can push turbines, which in turn produce electricity.

Solar panels use thermal energy storage. The panels absorb the heat of sunlight and store that energy so it can be transformed into electricity with turbines. There are several kinds of solar panels, but all rely on heat for energy, unlike photovoltaic cells.

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The Global Energy Mix and Policies

 On this page, you can find energy information about the world’s most populated countries: China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Russia, and Japan. For fossil fuel information about any country, see online tables here.

A nation’s sources of energy hinge on so many factors, from what’s naturally available to geography, political history, and relative wealth.

Even though energy demand is increasing rapidly across the globe, the International Energy Agency estimates a fifth of the world population lacks access to electricity, and a whopping 40 percent of people still use traditional biomass – like wood chips – for cooking. People who live without the energy infrastructure of electricity depend on portable petroleum fuels, manure and methane gas produced from manure, wood, grass, and agricultural wastes. Because these sources of energy are informal, it’s difficult to track and include them in statistics.

World electricity and energy demands are escalating. Countries are expanding energy investment to non-fossil sources like biofuels, wind, solar, and geothermal. At the same time, they are competing to secure access to coal, natural gas, and petroleum both at home and abroad.

 

Nowhere has rapid energy growth been more conspicuous than in the world’s most populated country, China. While most countries saw moderate energy growth in the same period, this Asian nation doubled energy use in less than a decade – see graph – and surpassed the United States in total energy use in 2009, according to International Energy Agency estimates. Until 2009, the United States lead the world in total energy consumption, though not per person consumption, for decades. For a list of the top 30 countries by total energy consumption see here.

Meanwhile, less than 42 percent of people in Africa had electricity at home in 2009. South Asians seemed better off than Africans that year, at 62 percent, but the real story is much more diverse. Nearly 100 percent of Chinese had access to electricity, while in Burma, only 13 percent had access. Worldwide almost 78 percent of people had access to electricity in 2009, according to the International Energy Agency.

 

ENERGY IN THE WORLD’S MOST POPULATED COUNTRIES

 

CHINA (Pop. 1.3 billion)

Between 2008 and 2035, China may triple its electricity demand, adding power plant capacity equal to the current U.S. total, the International Energy Agency projects in one scenario of the 2010 World Energy Outlook.

China is the world’s most populated country and also the world’s largest energy consumer. China gets most of its energy from coal, 71 percent in 2008. China is also the world’s biggest coal producer but only third, behind the United States and Russia, in coal reserves.

In 2008, China generated another 19 percent of its energy from oil, which it imported from all over the world, more than half came collectively from Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iran, Oman, Russia, and Sudan. China used to export its oil, but by 2009 automobile investment was expanded by so much, the country became the second largest oil importer (United States is first).

China is in hot pursuit of securing as much oil as possible, as the nation’s reliance on imported oil is growing far more rapidly than its oil production. Several powerful, national oil companies provide the domestic oil, both from on and off-shore sources. Furthermore, China has purchased oil assets in the Middle East, Canada, and Latin America, and it also conducts oil-for-loan exchanges with other countries, $90 billion worth since 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Only a small proportion of China’s energy comes natural gas, produced domestically and imported in liquified form, but that may change as prices lower and liquified natural gas terminals are constructed.

China is the world’s biggest user of hydroelectric power, which made up 6 percent of energy and 16 percent of electricity in 2009. The country’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, is expected to begin operating in 2012. Nuclear power accounts for only 1 percent of total consumption. However, China’s government predicts it will have seven times its current nuclear capacity by 2020.

A homemade oven. West Bengal, India, 2009.

Detailed data on energy in China can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

INDIA (1.2 billion)

India is the world’s largest democracy. Though India’s population is close to that of China’s, it is only the world’s fifth largest energy user, behind the United States, China, Russia, and Japan.

Like China, India’s electricity comes mostly from coal. However, India doesn’t have enough electricity for everyone, and only 65 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Instead, many Indian use fuels at home for lighting and cooking. A 2004-2005 survey by the government found more than 40 percent of rural Indians used kerosene instead of electricity for home lighting. The same survey showed that for cooking, 74 percent of Indians used firewood and wood chips, 8.6 percent used liquified petroleum gas, 9 percent used dung cakes, and 1.3 percent used kerosene.

India produces oil domestically, but like China, the rate of India’s increasing oil consumption far outstrips its production. India therefore has to import oil; in 2009 its most significant sources were Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Angola, and Venezuela, in descending order.

India doesn’t have the electricity capacity to serve its population but aims to add many thousands of megawatts in the near future.

Like China, India has nuclear power, with 14 nuclear plants in operation and another 10 in planning, the reactors purchased from France and Russia.

 

UNITED STATES (300 million)

Until China recently outpaced it, the United States was the biggest energy consumer in the world, though per capita use isn’t the highest but in the same range as several developed countries worldwide and less than the per capita use in Canada. The United States relies on petroleum, coal, and natural gas, as well as a small part nuclear, hydroelectric, and various non-fossil sources. The Unites States has significant oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, as well as the potential for significant investment in solar, off and on-shore wind, and biofuels.

The mix of fuels that provide electricity varies widely from region to region. Find a map of fuel mix by U.S. region from the Edison Electric Insitute here.

For more U.S. information:

-Fossil fuel use in the United States, go here.
-U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and energy here.
-U.S. sources of energy, see here.

 

INDONESIA (250 million)

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands — 6,000 are inhabited — and it is home to 76 active volcanoes and a significant undeveloped geothermal capacity, estimated at 28 gigawatts, about as much total electricity capacity as Indonesia had in 2008.

Indonesia’s energy demand is growing rapidly, split between coal, natural gas, and petroleum sources. Traditional sources of energy like wood and agricultural waste continue to be used, particularly in rural areas and remote islands, and the International Energy Administration estimates these fuels provide about a quarter of the country’s energy.

Indonesia exports coal and natural gas. In the past, the country also exported more oil than it used, but as of 2004 that balance changed. By 2009, the country suspended its membership in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) because it was using so much of its own oil.

 

BRAZIL (200 million)

Tropical Brazil is the largest country in South America both in area and population, and it is the third largest user of energy in the Americas, after the United States and Canada.

Made from sugar cane, Brazil’s ethanol production is the world’s second largest, after the United States, which makes ethanol from corn.

Brazil produces almost as much petroleum as Venezuela and produces slightly more fuel than it consumes.

While Brazil depends on oil for other energy applications like transportation, the country gets an astounding 84 percent of electricity from hydroelectric dams. Brazil also has two nuclear power plants.

PAKISTAN (190 million)

Pakistan has limited access to electricity and energy sources, and its rural population still relies on gathered fuels like wood for heating and cooking.

In 2009 around 60 percent of the population had access to electricity, far better than its neighbor Afghanistan, at just 15 percent. Nonetheless, even with access, most of the population can’t rely on electricity unless they are wealthy enough to own generators. Pakistan suffers from lengthy blackouts, even in its cities, in part because of poor transmission infrastructure and widespread electricity theft. The situation is also aggravated by lack of capacity planning, insufficient fuel, and irregularities in water supply for hydroelectric.

In 2010, angry citizens protested violently after lengthy blackouts — as long as 18 hours according to Reuters — plagued the country. That summer, Pakistan has nowhere near enough electricity for its peak needs, which were roughly 25 percent more than its total production capacity. The widespread blackouts crippled the country’s textile industry, its biggest source of exports, and some reports suggest that hundreds of factories were shuttered as a result of sporadic power.

Meanwhile, several proposals for gas pipelines through Pakistan have yet to get solidified, including one from Iran to Afghanistan (which is opposed by the United States).

 

BANGLADESH (160 million)

Like nearby Pakistan and India, with which it shares cultural and political histories, Bangladesh also suffers from electricity shortages. Only 41 percent of Bangladeshis had access to electricity in 2009, according to the International Energy Administration.

Most of the electricity in this delta nation is generated from natural gas, with smaller amounts each from oil, coal, and hydroelectric sources. More than 30 percent of the country’s energy comes from biomass, agricultural wastes, and other combustible, renewable materials.

In 2011, Bangladesh signed a contract with oil company ConocoPhillips, allowing off-shore drilling for natural gas, despite internal protests that insisted Bangladesh should keep more of the gas for its own. The agreement gives 20 percent to Bangladesh.

 

NIGERIA (160 million)

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and it is world famous for its oil, most of which is exported for sale by huge foreign oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Petrobras, and Statoil. Roughly 65 percent of government revenue comes from the oil sector, and around 40 percent its oil exports are sent to the United States. Nigeria also holds the largest natural gas reserves in Africa.

Extensive oil development has wreaked havoc on Nigeria’s ecology. Oil spills have polluted Nigeria’s water, affecting both fishing and agriculture. Much of Nigeria’s natural gas is flared rather than being collected and sold for fuel. Flaring involves burning off naturally-occurring gases during petroleum drilling and refining, resulting in  environmental degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and loss of revenue.

Even though Nigeria is fossil fuel-rich, only 47 percent of the population have access to electricity, and less than a fifth of energy in that country came from petroleum and natural gas in 2007, reflecting the widespread use of more traditional fuels like wood. Nigeria only used 13 percent of petroleum it produced in 2009.

 

RUSSIA (140 million)

Russia has significant wealth in fossil fuels, including the largest natural gas reserves and the second largest coal reserves, after the United States. In 2009, Russia produced more oil even than Saudi Arabia, mostly from Western Siberia. In 2009, Russia exported far more oil than it used, and 81 percent of its exports went to Europe, notably the Netherlands and Germany.

Russia is also the third largest consumer of energy in the world.

The country has a well-developed pipeline system to transport oil from remote regions, a system which is almost entirely controlled by a single state-run company, Transneft.

Like Nigeria, Russia flares gas in the process of drilling and refining oil, and in 2008 Russia flared more gas than any other country in the world, 1,432 Bcf of natural gas, more than double Nigeria’s output and equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions for 1.4 million passenger cars, according the calculator on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website and data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Russia operates 31 nuclear reactors, half of which employ a similar design to the ill-fated Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine.

 

JAPAN (130 million)

Japan doesn’t have significant fossil fuel resources, one reason that much of its electricity industry relies on nuclear power. It is the world’s third largest user of nuclear power.

Japan is the world’s third larger oil consumer, and it does produce some oil domestically. However, it also imports a lot of oil and natural gas, the later in the form of liquified natural gas, or LNG. Almost half of its energy came from imported oil in 2009, and just 16 percent of Japanese energy came from a domestic source.

Japan also invests heavily in foreign oil, including in the United Arab Emirates, the Congo, Algeria, Russia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Indonesia, to name a few.

As of June 2011, Japan is still recovering from a massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated its northeast coast on March 11, 2011, forcing the shutdown of several nuclear reactors as well as damaging refineries, oil and gas generators, and electricity transmission infrastructure.

Japan imports most of its oil from the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar together supplied 77 percent of imports in 2009.

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Major sources of energy/their advantages and disadvantages

There is no easy answer to what is the best source of energy or electricity. Is the priority reliability, affordability, the economy, international human rights, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, preserving environmental resources, or human health?

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It’s undeniable that today — whether we like it or not — humans worldwide are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Everything eaten, worn, lived in, and bought is tied to availability of fossil fuels. Even if 100 percent of politicians were determined to stop using them today, society has neither the electricity grid nor the vehicular and industrial technology to sustain the current American lifestyle on non-fossil sources of energy. Yet.

When comparing sources of energy, it’s easy to forget how universal fossil fuels are. These sources continue to dominate for reasons that are difficult to measure, like political influence, advertising clout, and control over energy infrastructure. Other sources have disadvantages purely because they don’t fit in as well.

Volume brings another difficulty in comparing sources of energy. There is so much more fossil energy, and it’s been used for a long time, so we know a lot more about its hazards and benefits. More modern technologies are harder to quantify. Some are renewable but still pollute (biofuels), some are very clean except in accidents or waste disposal (nuclear). Most electricity sources (renewable or not) use steam turbines, and all the water to make steam has to come from somewhere, but how important should that factor be?



Clicking the graphic above will give an abbreviated chart comparing sources line by line, but that doesn’t provide anywhere close to the whole story.

Each of the following topics compares the major sources of energy  through a different lens. Though environmental and local issues may seem the most important to those of us who don’t own power plants or utility companies, the cost of energy drives which sources are actually in place today and which sources will see investment tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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