Innovation for Sustainability

Executive Summary

Today, the sun is the most valuable source of renewable energy. Through years of research and development, engineers and scientists have identified various means of converting its energy into useful electricity. The two main types of solar energy systems are thermal and photovoltaic. In solar thermal systems, the sun’s heat is captured for future use. However, in photovoltaic systems, solar radiation is converted into electricity. There are numerous benefits of solar energy. For instance, it is clean, renewable, and does not require fossil fuels.

The leading sustainability issue today is the depletion of global oil reserves. Although oil can be found in Australia, it is situated in fragile and remote regions, and its extraction is expensive. Consequently, the Australian government is investigating the viability of the protectionism option as well as the trade option with the aim of addressing the mounting cost of obtaining fossil fuels. Numerous studies show that apart from enabling governments to cut costs, the options bear serious environmental repercussions. Therefore, most nations across the globe have turned to renewable sources of energy as a means of not only saving funds, but also enhancing environmental sustainability.

Since the sun is the leading source of renewable energy, solar panels are a common sight in most urban and rural areas. The development of the panels started in the 1860s when Willoughby Smith, a famous electrician, discovered that selenium was capable of transmitting minute electrical charges when exposed to sunlight. For years, research into the possibility of converting the sun’s energy into electricity continued until silicon replaced selenium photovoltaic (PV) cells in the 1950s. Although the discovery of silicon PV cells was a notable advancement, they were not only expensive, but also incapable of producing adequate electricity. In the 1980s, scientists started manufacturing PV cells from amorphous silicon. The new cells were cheaper than previous versions and their electricity output was higher.

The impact of solar panels on the human society is significant. For instance, while the extraction of fossil fuels is responsible for water pollution, fuel spills, acid rain, and global warming, relying on solar energy has enabled people to conserve the environment. Besides environmental conservation, PV technology has created massive employment opportunities. For instance, in Australia, the solar energy sector directly employs about 20,000 people and supports over 200,000 jobs in sectors such as steel and glass manufacturing, electrical and battery equipment manufacturing, and others.

Regardless of such benefits, the development of solar panels presents engineers with various ethical challenges. According to Corkish et al., (2013), cadmium is an important compound PV cells. However, it is highly toxic, and causes fever, muscle aches, as well as renal failure when exposed to the skin. The Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers (APESM) is guided by numerous codes of ethics that require engineers to prioritize the health, safety, and wellbeing of the public. Therefore, the ethical dilemma facing engineers across the globe is how to continue manufacturing solar panels without exposing people to potentially carcinogenic compounds.

In conclusion, this report shows although PV cells are an important discovery, employing sustainability techniques when producing them is of superior importance. ‘As You Know’ as well as other environmental conservation groups encourages investors, consumers, and other stakeholders to purchase solar panels that have been produced sustainably. If engineers upheld such standards, the solar energy sector would become the cleanest and most sustainable source of energy.

Innovation for Sustainability

Numerous scholars agree that the sun is the most valuable source of renewable energy. Traditionally, it provided energy for most living things through the process of photosynthesis. However, following years of research, engineers and scientists identified different means of converting its energy into useful electricity. Presently, there are two different kinds of solar energy systems: thermal and photovoltaic. Solar thermal systems utilize various methods of trapping the sun’s heat for future use. There are active systems such as hot water heaters, as well as passive systems that are incorporated into building designs to enable them to retain heat (Black, 2014). In contrast, photovoltaic systems transform solar radiation into electricity. The most common approach is the use of silicon panels, which generate electrical currents when exposed to sunlight. Solar photovoltaics are particularly useful for remote rural applications (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). The main advantage of solar energy is that it is clean, can operate independently or in tandem with traditional energy sources, and is renewable. However, it is presently more expensive compared to traditional energy. Furthermore, it can be unreliable because its availability differs from season to season, and from day to day. In spite of such challenges, there is still an opportunity for utilizing solar energy effectively across the globe. This report evaluates the impact of the discovery of solar power on engineering as well as environmental sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability Issue

Australia is on the verge of depleting its oil supply due to years of excessive extraction
(Black, 2014). More oil can be found but only in fragile and remote places and at a higher cost. Due to that, foreign oil costs less to locate and extract compared to Australian oil. Furthermore, regardless of the nation’s technological expertise, the cost has gradually widened. According to Friedrichs (2013), there are only three ways of dealing with the threat of oil depletion: trade, substitution, and protectionism.

The Protectionism Option

Majority of Australian oil companies, like most organizations in other sectors whose products are incapable of competing effectively in international markets, advocate for either tariffs that would increase the cost of imported oil, or a re-establishment of recently reduced government subsidies. Even though both choices could stimulate the exploration and extraction of domestic oil, they bear serious side effects. Either choice could make Australians pay more for oil, which would lower the competitiveness of the Australian economy (Black, 2014). Other than that, by making domestic oil appear cheaper than it truly is, particularly relative to foreign oil, either choice could accelerate the very depletion that was a serious problem in the first place.

In light of the predicament, a more thoughtful variation of the protectionism option would be to increase taxes on gasoline as well as other oil products with the aim of discouraging consumption. According to Gilbert & Pearl (2012), the approach would not influence oil companies’ choices between importing oil and extracting it domestically because they would automatically take the least expensive option, which would be importation. However, the approach could keep domestic oil organizations in business for longer because decreased consumption would slow down oil depletion. Unfortunately, even though tax increases can encourage oil savings among individuals who can afford cars that are more efficient (almost half of Australia’s oil is utilized on highways), they would burden the people who can hardly afford the cars they possess (Friedrichs, 2013). More generally, all taxation options on final energy products are disproportionately unfavorable to individuals with low incomes because they utilize large fractions of their annual incomes on fuel. Other than that, an oil tax would also distort purchasing and investment options between oil and other major fuels. Both challenges could be avoided by taxing all non-renewable fuels evenly as they come into the country or out of the ground. Although such an option has the potential of greatly enriching the treasury, it is a long-term and oblique solution to the exhaustion of low-cost Australian oil.

The Trade Option

The most sustainable alternative to protectionism is the purchase of the cheapest oil, regardless of whether it is foreign. Australians are already doing that. For instance, in 2012, net imports increased to 33% of all oil utilized in Australia (Black, 2014). However, the nation already imports more commodities. For instance, in 2010, it imported about 75% of the nickel utilized, about 83% of the tin, about 70% of the tungsten, and about 92% of the bauxite (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). The nation also imports coffee, cattle, cars, perfume, television, and other products. To pay for the imports, Australia is required to export various commodities.

Although the importation of cheap oil slows down the rate of domestic oil depletion, it is susceptible to cut offs by politics or war (Friedrichs, 2013). For many Australians, the likelihood of oil cutoffs indicates not only a threat to the nation’s military power, but also the inconvenience of gas transmission lines. However, four specific countermeasures or precautions against oil cutoffs are widely available: stockpiling, diversification, friendly relations, and military intervention.

Australia’s oil sources have already been diversified. For instance, in 2013, over half of its net oil imports came from Britain and the Western Hemisphere
(Black, 2014). Of all oil utilized by the nation in 2008, about 18% came from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), about 7% from Arab nations, and less than 6% from the Persian Gulf (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). Stockpiling, which is an important precaution, is already being implemented in not only Australia, but also across the globe. For instance, Japan has about 200 million barrels of crude oil secured in anchored tankers. As of 2010, government stockpiles among the 21 most developed nations exceeded 1.2 billion barrels, which was more than two times the 1990 level (Friedrichs, 2013). The reserve can sustain the nations for over one year should there be an abrupt cutoff of the shipments passing across the Strait of Hormuz. Enforcing military intervention with the aim of maintaining access to foreign oil is not always a viable option because it is unethical, unsafe, and expensive. In spite of the benefits of the trade option, it does not increase the sustainability of the exploitation of global oil reserves.

The Substitution Option

Substitution is inexpensive and works better because it avoids majority of the problems associated with the first two options. It saves money instead of overspending it, enhances security instead of risks, and averts the economic and environmental damage brought about by rapid depletion of domestic oil reserves. The option entails the use of alternative liquid fuels (Black, 2014).

Numerous scholars consider alternative fuels to be likely complements to oil in the short-run as well as promising substitutes in the long-run. Presently, more than 98% of the Australian transport sector relies on petroleum. The reason for that dominance is simple: transportation fuels derived from petroleum pack considerable energy in a small weight and energy. Furthermore, the internal combustion engine (ICE) present in majority of the vehicles is not only compact and powerful, but also well suited to a wide range of transportation applications. Therefore, for alternative sources of energy to compete with petroleum, they need to be price competitive and compatible with the current ICE technology (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012).

The ability of alternative fuels to reduce the dependence of Australia on petroleum and enhance Australia’s national security due to reductions in imported oil depends on the extent of their diffusion into the nation’s fuel market. Consequently, the diffusion will be influenced by the cost of the alternatives in relation to diesel and gasoline, the degree to which customers view the alternatives as viable substitutes, the availability of vehicles capable of utilizing the fuels, as well as the required fuel distribution infrastructure (Black, 2014).

The benefits of petroleum split potential competitors into two rival camps: liquid biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol that can be used with the present ICE technology and other sources of energy such as electricity and hydrogen that call for new motor technologies. Friedrichs (2013) asserts that in the case of hydrogen, an entirely new delivery infrastructure will be needed. In the short-run, biofuels are likely to be highly competitive. However, in the long term, electricity and hydrogen provide the technical potential needed to wean Australia from petroleum use completely.

Biofuels as a remedy to the threat of oil depletion. Biofuels have the potential of penetrating the transportation market. Ethanol is produced from sugar, corn, and such fibrous plants as switchgrass (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). Presently, about 10% ethanol is combined with gasoline to create e10, which acts as a substitute for methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) which was once incorporated into gasoline for environmental purposes. With minor vehicle modifications costing about $100 per car, new vehicles capable of running on as much as 90% ethanol (e90) can be successfully produced (Black, 2014). Such ‘flexfuel’ vehicles are presently being manufactured in Australia, America, Japan, as well as other regions of the world. According to Friedrichs (2013), there are about 1 million vehicles on Australian highways today

With a government subsidy of about 52 cents per gallon, corn-based ethanol becomes price competitive because gasoline costs about $3 per gallon. In spite of that, the small quantity of ethanol manufactured is predominantly utilized in the production of e10 blends. If the popularity of e90 increases, the government will be required to scale up ethanol production, which could increase cost in response to the rising demand. Additionally, ethanol possesses about 70% of the energy yield of gasoline, which results in fewer miles per gallon. For that reason, if the price of gasoline is about $3 per gallon, competitive e90 must sell for less than $2.30 to attract consumers.

Outside Australia, various nations have manufactured ethanol from sugar. For instance, in Brazil, over 20% of the transport fuel market relies on ethanol from sugar (Black, 2014). The World Bank asserts that with adequate government support, Brazil has the potential of producing ethanol from sugar for as low as $1 per gallon (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). However, the importation of ethanol from the nation faces high tariffs (a 2.5% tax on the value as well as a secondary tariff of about 54 cents per gallon). Eliminating or reducing such tariffs might increase ethanol supply to Australia, thereby lowering cost and hastening the penetration of the fuel into the nation’s transportation fuel market (Friedrichs, 2013).

It is also possible to produce ethanol for such woody fibrous plats as switchgrass. The utilization of readily available and low-cost feedstock has convinced numerous scholars that cellulosic ethanol can be highly price competitive with gasoline after the technology experiences further growth. Recently, Honda Motor Company announced that it had successfully utilized a strain of microorganisms matured in Japan to convert the sugar contained in cellulose into alcohol more efficiently (Black, 2014). In contrast to corn, the biomass used in cellulosic conversion can be grown in large quantities. Furthermore, it does not require excessive use of agricultural land.

Apart from substituting petroleum, biofuels can have positive effects on climate change. for instance, biodiesel and ethanol are produced in a closed carbon cycle because the carbon dioxide (CO2) released during combustion is captured by the plant material and utilized in the production of additional fuels (Gilbert & Pearl, 2012). Therefore, since biofuels reduce CO2 emissions, they are more climate-friendly compared to petroleum.

The main challenge associated with biofuels is that their production relies on the cultivation of various crops to provide the necessary feedstock, which is later processed to yield the fuels
(Friedrichs, 2013). Cultivation and processing involves the use of energy as well as other inputs such as fertilizers, which can contribute to GHG emissions and other environmental impacts such as water pollution. Further research is required to make definitive statements concerning the positive climatic effects of large-scale biofuels production.

Carbon-free cars as a remedy to the threat of oil depletion. To some scholars, transportation nirvana does not involve ICEs. Instead, it involves electric cars running on inbuilt, hydrogen-powered fuel cells or rechargeable batteries. However, presently, fuel cell-powered electric or battery-powered pure electric vehicles cannot compete effectively with ICE-powered vehicles based on price and attributes. Major manufacturers have not yet committed to large-scale production because fuel-cell vehicles are further from commercial production than battery-powered vehicles. Since the goal is to minimize Australia’s petroleum consumption over the next few decades, battery-powered electric vehicles will play an important role. However, the magnitude of that contribution will depend on developments in battery technology. According to Gilbert & Pearl (2012), fuel-cell vehicles must surmount considerable engineering challenges such as development of a secure hydrogen delivery infrastructure and hydrogen storage before widespread commercial deployment takes place.

Origins of Solar Power

In the late 1860s, an electrician named Willoughby Smith was troubleshooting underwater telegraph lines using selenium. By chance, he realized that electricity travelled through the material when it was exposed to light. In the early 1870s, two American scientists named Richard Day and William Adams became interested in the phenomenon. Later on, they discovered that sunlight created electrical charges in selenium.

Over the next decade, numerous scientists attempted to gain deeper understanding concerning the characteristics of selenium. In the late 1880s, Charles Fritts developed the first photovoltaic cell (PV) cell by encapsulating a layer of selenium between a metal plate and a gold leaf (Perlin, 1999). When exposed to sunlight, the cell produced more electricity. However, since the electricity was not enough to be useful, most scientists abandoned the project. Majority of them considered it a worthless gimmick because, based on their knowledge of the ability of black materials to capture the sun’s energy, they could not see how a cell that was not black could utilize the sun’s light to produce electricity.

Albert Einstein was among the few scientists that were determined to understand how light created electricity when it interacted with metal objects. In 1905, he explained how light was composed of tiny energy packets called photons. He went ahead and argued that the energy packets were more powerful in ultraviolet light and other forms of invisible light than they were in visible light. In fact, he argued that they had enough energy to dislodge loose electrons off metallic materials such as silicon and selenium. The lose electrons moved through wires in the form of electricity. Soon after, various scientists tested the ideas and discovered that they were correct. Later on, Einstein won a Nobel Prize and his research was embraced by numerous scientists across the globe as they attempted to enhance the effectiveness of PV cells.

From the early 1800s until 1913, gas-powered heating and lighting became widely used due to its affordability. As a result, people developing technologies for lighting or heating focused more on enhancing gas-burning techniques instead of investigating PV technology. By 1874, over two thirds of town houses in Europe were lit by gas. Following the end of World War I (1918), gas and oil replaced coal as the most accessible and cheapest fuels for engines (Perlin, 1999). Since oil was inexpensive and it was readily available, solar energy became less interesting to most scientists. However, few of them kept trying to find ways of utilizing solar energy to create electricity and heat water.

In 1931, a German scientists named Bruno Lange built solar cell panels out of selenium. However, just like Fritts, his panels generated an insignificant amount of electricity. The other challenge was that the selenium cells did not last for long when exposed to strong sunlight. Owing to such reasons, most scientists conclude that PV cells were never going to be effective sources of electricity.

However, people’s interest in solar energy was re-aroused in the early 1950s when Gerald Pearson and Calvin Fuller, two American scientists working at Bell Laboratories, accidentally created a PV cell as they were trying to enhance silicon transistors. The cell was made from two different types of silicon. In 1953, another Bell scientist named Daryl Chapin was attempting to increase the electricity yield of several selenium cells. However, most of his efforts were unsuccessful. For that reason, he started looking into the accidental silicon PV cell as soon as Pearson mentioned it to him. Soon after, the Bell scientists discovered that silicon PV cells produced five times more electricity compared to selenium cells.

The scientists continued experimenting with silicon cells with the aim of boosting electricity yield. Following numerous disappointments, they finally succeeded after mixing slices of silicon crystals with small amounts of different chemicals. The PV cells they created were over 50 times more efficient compared to the selenium cells discovered about 20 years earlier (Perlin, 1999).

After that discovery, American military scientists started investigating whether PV cells could power satellites in orbit. The scientists were convinced that PV cells were better than batteries because they were capable of generating electricity for years. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agency was reluctant to deploy the new technology labeling it ‘risky’ because nobody had used it in space before. NASA’s reluctance frustrated numerous scientists that believed taking risks was important in the process of enhancing technology. Simultaneously, other scientists felt that nuclear power was the best way of powering satellites.

Ultimately, in 1958, NASA allowed several PV cell-powered radio transmitters on board the Vanguard I satellite. The PV cells not only worked well, but also lasted longer than conventional satellite batteries. Several weeks later, Russia deployed a PV cell-powered radio satellite into orbit. By the end of 1972, more than 1000 satellites relied on solar power, which meant that various governments across the globe dedicated more funds to the enhancement of PV cells. As a result, the cells generated more electricity and became lighter and more durable.

Despite such advances, PV cells were too expensive to be used on earth. For instance, in 1973, the cost of PV power was about 200 times the cost of ordinary electricity in Australia. However, several power companies started experimenting with different ways of manufacturing cheaper PV cells because they through solar energy might be needed in the future when global oil reserves became depleted and electricity became more costly. Eventually, in 1974, the international price of oil quadrupled because some nations stopped selling the commodity. Over the next few years, the price maintained an upward trend and by 1980, it was over 25 times more expensive than it was in 1970 (Perlin, 1999). The challenge gave scientists and governments more reason to identify ways of improving solar power technologies such as PV cells.

By the late 1970s, PV cells were the main sources of power for most remote places where the use of electric cables was too expensive. Before long, the cells were used to power radios, satellite and telephone systems, as well as railway track warning lights situated in remote areas. Furthermore, in countries such as Nigeria, solar power was used to power school television systems, which ensured that children in remote areas could watch educational TV programs. PV cells were also used to power foghorns, lighthouses, and buoys at sea. They were also used to provide lighting to offshore oilrigs.

Various improvements were made to PV systems over time. New types of silicon were discovered, such as sheets and thin ribbons of silicon. Later on, in the early 1980s, scientists started making photovoltaic cells from amorphous silicon. According to Perlin (1999), even though the electricity yield of the cells was low, they were cheap to manufacture. As a result, PV systems stated powering air conditioners, water pumps, and lights in countries such as Saudi Arabia where individuals lived in remote areas. By the late 1980s, over 25% of the world’s solar cells were used to provide power to communities living in French Polynesia
(Perlin, 1999). Today, in some nations such as Kenya and Uganda, more individuals utilize electricity from PV cells than electricity from power grids. Furthermore, such organizations as the World Bank as well as the German Government finance the process of purchasing PV systems for communities living in developing nations.

In New South Wales (NSW), the highways have over 15,000 PV-powered emergency phone booths. PV systems are used to power speed limit warning lights and signs on roads. In other parts of the world, scientists even utilize mini PV-powered radio transmitters attached to wild animals to learn more about their migration patterns. Since 1996, PV cells have powered remote controlled aircrafts such as Pathfinder airplanes and Icare (Perlin, 1999). As the technology becomes cheaper and durable, it has been used to power electric cars and medium sized corporate buildings.

Types of Photovoltaic Systems

PV systems are capable of providing clean power for large as well as small applications. They already generate electricity around the globe on individual homes, public buildings, offices, and housing developments. Today, fully functioning PV installations operate in built environments as well as remote areas that lack energy infrastructures. PV systems operating in isolated areas are referred to as standalone systems (Corkish, Green, Watt, & Wenham, 2013). In built locations, PV systems are mostly mounted on rooftops (referred to as Building Adapted PV systems or BAPV) or integrated into the building or roof façade (referred to as Building Integrated PV systems or BIPV) (Prasad & Snow, 2014).

Contemporary PV systems are not limited to flat or square panel arrays. They can be flexible, curved, or even shaped according to the design of the building. Innovative engineers and architects are continuously identifying ways of integrating PV systems into their designs as well as developing buildings that are more dynamic and provide clean and free energy throughout their lives.

Grid Connected Systems

When PV systems are connected to the electricity network, all excess power that they generate is fed into the grid. Under a feed in tariff (FiT) regime, owners of the PV systems are paid in accordance with the laws of the local electricity provider (Heinberg, 2013). Such types of PV systems are said to be ‘on-grid’.

Commercial and residential systems. Most PV systems in Australia are installed in businesses and homes in developed areas. By connecting their systems to the electricity network, owners are capable of selling their excess power. However, when solar energy is not adequate, electricity can be obtained from the grid. Since solar systems only generate direct current (DC) while majority of household appliances utilize alternating current (AC), an inverter is required for each PV system to convert DC to AC (Corkish et al., 2013).

Utility-scale and industrial power plants. Extensive industrial PV systems are capable of producing considerable quantities of electricity depending on environmental conditions. In many instances, solar panels for industrial PV systems are mounted on metallic frames on the ground. Conversely, they can also be positioned on large industrial buildings such as railway stations, airport terminals, or warehouses.

Stand-alone, Hybrid, and Off-grid Systems

Off-grid PV systems are not connected to electricity grids. In many instances, they are equipped with batteries so that power can be used during the days or after extended periods of low irradiation (Prasad & Snow, 2014). An inverter is also needed to generate AC power for use by house appliances. Most stand-alone systems fall into one of the following categories:

  • Consumer goods.

  • Off-grid PV systems for rural electrification.

  • Off-grid industrial applications.

Consumer goods. Presently, PV cells are found in many ordinary electrical appliances such as calculators, battery chargers, toys, watches, and others. Furthermore, such services as lighting and telephone boxes, road signs, and water sprinklers rely on individual photovoltaic systems.

Figure 1: Public lights in Berlin

theme of innovation for sustainability in solar power

Source: Corkish et al. (2013, p. 53).

Off-grid PV systems for rural electrification. Ordinary off-grid installations are used to supply electricity to developing countries or remote areas. They can be medium sized home systems that cover the electricity needs of a household, or large solar mini-grids that supply enough power for small business use, a community, or several homes.

Figure 2: Rural electrification PV system in a village in Kenya

theme of innovation for sustainability in solar power  1

Source: Prasad & Snow (2014, p. 16).

Off-grid industrial applications. Heinberg (2013) asserts that most developed nations utilize off-grid industrial PV systems in remote areas to power marine navigation aids, mobile telephones (enabling communications), highway signals, water treatment plants, remote lighting, traffic signals, and others. Hybrid as well as full PV systems are utilized. Hybrid systems rely on sunlight during the day and other sources of fuel at night or during extended cloudy periods. According to Corkish et al. (2013), off-grid industrial PV systems provide a cost-effective solution to supplying power to regions far away from existing grids. The expense involved with installing cables makes off-grid solar power and inexpensive choice.

Figure 3: Off-grid industrial application

theme of innovation for sustainability in solar power  2

Source: Prasad & Snow (2014, p. 19).

Impact of the Innovation on the Society

Conventional fuel sources are responsible for numerous environmental problems, such as depletion of oil reserves and other natural resources, destruction of habitats as a result of fuel spills, water pollution, smog, acid rain, and global warming. Photovoltaic systems do not create such environmental challenges. Today, silicon is the primary component of majority of PV modules. Heinberg (2013) asserts that silicon cells produced from one ton of sand are capable of producing as much electricity power as burning about 500,000 tons of coal. Apart from environmental conservation, PV technology also creates employment. For instance, in Australia, solar industries employ close to 20,000 people directly and support more than 200,000 jobs in such areas as steel and glass manufacturing, architecture and system design, electrical and plumbing contracting, as well as electrical and battery equipment manufacturing (Corkish et al., 2013). For every $150 million in PV sales, about 3,800 jobs are created.

The PV market is growing rapidly. Most economists predict that PVs will be the fastest growing forms of commercial energy by the end of 2030, with sales surpassing $100 billion (Heinberg, 2013). In fact, according to Prasad & Snow (2014), the utilization of solar energy in Australia will double by the year 2020 and create over 350,000 new jobs. Owing to such trends, most people consider the source of energy the future of the nation’s energy production.

Advantages of Photovoltaic Technology

Compared to conventional power sources, PV systems offer substantial advantages. Some of them are:

  • Durability. About two thirds of the PV modules manufactured today show no signs of degradation even after ten years of continuous use. According to Corkish et al. (2013), it is highly likely that upcoming models will be capable of producing power for over 25 years.

  • Reliability. Even in harsh situations, PV systems have demonstrated their reliability. Therefore, they avert costly power failures particularly in situations where constant operation is critical.

  • No fuel costs. Since no fuel sources are required, no costs associated with transporting, purchasing, and storing fuel are incurred. For that reason, they enhance sustainability by limiting the overexploitation and depletion of crude oil.

  • Reduced sound pollution. PV systems not only operate silently, but also with minimal movement.

  • Safety. PV systems are safe when designed and installed properly. Furthermore, since they do not utilize combustible fuels, they do not pose the risk of explosions or fires.

  • Photovoltaic modularity. Heinberg (2013) asserts that the cost effectiveness of PV systems is higher than that of bulky conventional systems. For instance, in PV systems, new modules can be added incrementally to increase electricity yield.

  • Electrical grid decentralization. According to Prasad & Snow (2014), small-scale decentralization power stations minimize the likelihood of outages on particular electric grids.

  • High altitude performance. The use of PV systems at high altitudes is advantageous because power output is optimized. However, when diesel generators are taken to high altitudes, they must be de-rated owing to losses in power output and efficiency.

  • Independence. According to most residential PV users, energy independence from utilities is the main motivation for embracing the technology.

Disadvantages of Photovoltaic Technology

PV systems bear several disadvantages when compared to traditional power systems. Several of them are:

  • Initial cost. All PV installations are assessed from an economic point of view and weighed against existing alternatives. However, as the cost of oil increases and that of PV systems reduces, they will eventually become more economically competitive.

  • Efficiency improvements. Cost-effective utilization of photovoltaic systems is dependent on a high-efficiency approach to energy utilization. In many instances, such an approach dictates replacement of inefficient appliances.

  • Energy storage. Some PV systems utilize batteries for energy storage, which increases the cost, size, as well as complexity of a particular system.

  • Inconsistency of available solar radiation. The power output of most solar-based energy systems is greatly affected by weather. For that reason, variations in site or climate condition calls for modifications in system design (Corkish et al., 2013).

  • Education. Essentially, PV systems are an unfamiliar technology because only few individuals understand their feasibility and value. Therefore, the lack of information slows down technological as well as market growth.

Health, Safety, and Environmental Concerns

Electricity produced from photovoltaic systems is safer and environmentally benign compared to conventional sources of energy. However, several health, safety, and environmental concerns are associated with the manufacturing, usage, and disposal of PV equipment. Heinberg (2013) asserts that the process of manufacturing PV equipment is energy intensive. Although the amount of electricity produced by PV modules in their lifetimes exceeds the amount utilized to manufacture them, an energy break-even point is only achieved after seven to eight years.

Similar to any other manufacturing process, the production of PV modules creates several health and environmental hazards. For instance, workers are sometimes exposed to potentially explosive and toxic gases, such as cadmium, hydrogen deselenide, diborane, and phosphine compounds. Manufacturers have the responsibility of minimizing worker and environmental hazards by implementing well designed monitoring systems and industrial processes. However, safety for installation personnel is no longer a serious concern. Only qualified individuals using equipment that comply with national safety standards can install PV systems.

The disposal of PV system components poses moderate environmental hazards. According to Prasad & Snow (2014), majority of solar modules possess an expected useful life of about 25 years. Although most of the components such as aluminum frames as well as glass and plastic encasements can be reused or recycled, semiconductor recycling is highly limited.

Ethical Issues Surrounding the Production of PV Cells

Cadmium is one of the photovoltaic materials used in the development of solar panels. Even though it enhances the efficiency of PV cells, it is highly toxic. For that reason, the European Union (EU) has prohibited engineers from using it, among other five substances, in the manufacture of electronic devices (Corkish et al., 2013). Most cadmium containing compounds are carcinogenic and capable of causing fever, muscle aches, as well as renal failure. The Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers (APESM) as well as Engineers Australia have codes of ethics that require engineers to hold paramount the welfare, health, and safety of the public (Heinberg, 2013). In that light, the most ethical solution would be to avoid exposing consumers to carcinogenic materials. In contrast, another code of conduct maintained by the APESM is to avoid injuring the reputation of engineers (Prasad & Snow, 2014). Owing to the contradictory codes of conduct, arguing against the utilization of cadmium compounds in solar panels can be considered an insult against the engineers that developed the first cadmium based PV cell. However, the risk of causing physical harm to consumers is more important injuring the reputation of engineers.

Challenges Encountered During the Development of the Report

The report relied on secondary data to gather information concerning the relationship between solar power and sustainability. The main disadvantage of secondary data is that some sources failed to answer my research question clearly. Furthermore, since I did not personally conduct data collection, I had no control over the facts contained in the data set. That limitation greatly inhibited my analysis of the research question. To overcome such challenges, researchers should obtain adequate background information concerning the authors of secondary data because the knowledge will enable them to distinguish between credible and misleading sources of information.

In conclusion, although solar energy is greener than traditional energy, it does not guarantee that solar panels are manufactured sustainably. For corporations investing in or purchasing solar panels because of their environmental advantages, it is important to keep track of sustainability leaders and to avoid associating with manufacturers who employ less sustainable practices. However, according to Corkish et al. (2013), the good news is that majority of solar manufacturers are aware of the value of sustainability in their production processes. ‘As You Know’, a leading San Francisco non-profit organization that advocates for environmental as well as social corporate responsibility, supports solar energy and has produced a report entitled “Clean & Green: Best Practices in Photovoltaics” with the aim of guiding investors, consumers, and other stakeholders. The impact of the organization as well as other environmental conservation groups is felt throughout the globe. Regardless of the challenges facing the solar energy sector, the inherent advantages of PV cells over fossil fuels is compelling. For instance, besides the renewability of solar energy, the manufacture of solar panels is safer than that of fossil fuel equipment. However, the sector is yet to overcome huddles such as the toxicity of the compounds utilized in the production of PV cells as well as the reluctance of various engineers to abide by health and safety codes.


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