Group 1 2014: Solar Energy: Sustainable Energy for Blacksburg

ABSTRACT

Solar energy, known as solar power in implementation, is a simple thing in definition; it is harnessing the energy from the sun’s rays (solar energy) to be converted to electricity and used to power anything that requires it. Solar power is known as a renewable and green energy source because it will not run or deplete over time such as fossil fuels that take millions of years to replenish. This is one of the most abundant energy sources that can be found on Earth, but it is not as widely implemented as an outsider would think it should be. There are many conflicting points on the use of solar energy based on certain pros and cons about the equipment, gathering, and overall process of obtaining solar power for civilization. The key aspects that surround the use of solar power are technology, integration into industry, politics, and the impact or influences from the economy.

The following article analyzes that use and drive for implementation of solar power in the Blacksburg, Virginia area including Virginia Tech. The analysis and points of view bring together the ideas about solar power as related to the influences on including industrial, technological, economic, and political.

ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECT OF SOLAR ENERGY IN BLACKSBURG
Solarizing Blacksburg would be an environmental friendly project. Solar energy has the potential to totally change the Blacksburg community for the good. There are many environmental benefits of using solar energy versus using other fuel sources such as coal. We need to take a look as to why there is a lack of awareness and a lack of projects that involve using solar energy in the Blacksburg area. The sun offers “6,000 times more energy in just one day than the whole world needs for an entire year” according to sungevity.com. If you could harness this energy we would never have to worry about making a huge environmental footprint.

We’ll look into the many environmental benefits of solar energy. The most obvious benefit to having solar energy is the free abundance of it. Energy from the sun is a never ending, free resource that we should be tapping into instead of our fossil fuels, which are decreasing drastically. There are many environmental benefits to no longer using our finite resources for energy and starting to use solar. By using solar we protect our air, land, and water. We no longer destroy our trees that is used as a fuel which means we don’t create erosion from harvesting those trees. By not creating erosion we clean our water which is not only good for our health it’s great for our fish and animal species. By allowing our trees to grow they soak up carbon dioxide which cleans the air we breathe as well. Creating energy is a very demanding, water intensive process. According to SFgate.com, “in the U.S., electricity production accounts for more than 40 percent of all daily freshwater withdrawals.” Solar energy systems do not require water to create electricity. Using solar allows us to decrease production on coal and oil which again allows us to have clean air and water. Solar panels do have hazardous materials in them but are only dangerous to the environment when broking. If you compare the environmental consequences of coal or oil to solar you could see the consequences of oil/coal is way more than solar. Blacksburg already has many existing structures that solar energy can be implemented on which means we don’t need to destroy more land for human use. According to nytimes.com, solar energy “contributes 96 percent to 98 percent less greenhouse gases than electricity generated from 100 percent coal”. So when thinking about greenhouse gases, if we switched to solar and had no coal our greenhouse emissions would be almost non-existing. By reducing greenhouse gases we not only help our environment but we drastically improve our own health. With cleaner air, life expectancy of humans and wildlife increase significantly. The environmental law and policy center said “every megawatt-hour of electricity generated through a solar PV panel avoids more than 1,300 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2)”. Solar energy is generated directly from the sun straight to the roof meaning it eliminates transportation which eliminates land destruction and degradation.

In conclusion, the environmental benefits of solar energy is clearly worth the cost of switching from fossil fuels. If Blacksburg went to solar then we could be one of the environmental friendliest towns in America. Blacksburg should be un-reliant on other fuel sources and switch to use only solar energy. Not only will switching improve the Blacksburg area, it will improve your wallet. As technology advances in leaps and bounds creating solar energy will only get safer and easier which brings us to our next aspect.

TECHNOLOGY ASPECT OF SOLAR ENERGY IN BLACKSBURG

From the view of technology, Blacksburg should implement more solar systems. Blacksburg is a type of community that includes various building with different functions and needs. Thus, only one type of solar system will not be sufficient for this huge community. Thus, the technology boosting is required. Fortunately, there are three major types of solar technology today. They are Photovoltaic (PV), Solar Heating and Cooling (SHC), and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP).

Photovoltaic is a type of technology that can directly transfer the solar power into electricity. This technology uses the property of some special materials that can absorb photons of sunlight, and release electrons (How do Photovoltaics Work). A lot of released electrons can then form current, which can then be stored or directly used as electricity. The structure of a solar panel is that many solar cells make up a solar module, many modules then combine a big solar array. The core of one solar cell is actually a semiconductor. One semiconductor in general is a sandwich like structure made by three different types of materials. Because of the different physical properties between these materials, it gains the property that can absorb photons from light and release electrons to produce electricity. In general, the top and bottom in the sandwich structure are made from cadmium telluride (CdTe) and cadmium sulfide (CdS). In order to let the operating efficiency of the solar panel rises above 2%, cadmium chloride (CdCl2) are used to activate CdTe and CdS (Simple substitution cuts solar cell toxicity). Some people against to implement more solar systems; one of the reasons is the toxic pollution during the fabrication with CdCl2. However, as technology improving, simple nontoxic material has been found out to replace the CdCl2 without reducing the function. This nontoxic material is magnesium chloride (MgCl­2). By replacing the CdCl2 to MgCl2, the cost of using MgCl2 to activate the semiconductor is just one three-hundredth of using CdCl2 (from $1.5 million drop to $5000). Due to the improvements of technologies, Blacksburg should implement these solar systems with PV technology. They can be implemented on most of Virginia Tech’s academic buildings and directly provide power to the building.

Not like photovoltaic directly transfer solar energy to electricity, two other types of solar systems are likely to be implemented in residential areas. They are Solar Heating and Cooling (SHC), and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP).

There are a lot of residential communities in Blacksburg, such as dorms on campus, apartment out of campus and also a lot of local residents. The demand on heated water or space is huge. Such as swimming pools needs a lot warm water, or the bath systems need hot water to showering and space need to be heated during cold weather. These demands take 72 percent of energy used in an average household in 2010 (Solar Heating and Cooling). Solar Heating and Cooling is an efficient way to heat, dehumidify and cool down water and space. SHC technology uses evacuated pipes to heat the water and then collects them in a hot water tank. Those heated water can be directly used for swimming pool or residential bath systems. The investment on implementing SHC systems can be returned in 3 to 6 years. In addition, the SHC system can used to dehumidify and cool down air. For example, during the raining days in autumn and after storm in summer, it is inconvenient humid inside house. Air can go through the SHC system and be dried by desiccants and then flow into rooms. The desiccants are then be dried out by solar heat. People may be surprised by the cooling function of solar energy. SHC system uses the same principle as refrigerator, instead, it does not use compressor to absorb high temperature air. However, it uses heated fluid from the solar collector to pull hot air out. SHC system could be implemented above dorms on campus, and let local residents to implement the system on their roofs. This system can cut the bills of electricity down from the pool water usage, hot water usage and part of air conditioner usage.

Concentrating Solar Power is similar to the conventional watt steam engine. Unlike burning coal to boil water, CSP technology uses concentrated solar power to heat water. It can heat the water up to 700° F (Concentrating Solar Power); the steam from boiling water will drive a steam turbine system to produce electricity. CSP technology use the principle of mirror and lens can focus sunlight at one point and have high thermal energy at that point. Thus, similar to SHC technology, CSP system also transfers thermal energy solar power into electricity. Virginia Tech can build a CSP system that are far from residential areas, since the reflection of sunlight are kind of pollution to residential. The mirrors and lens can be designed to track the sun, thus to collect as much sun energy as possible. This CSP system can serve this community same as other power stations.

POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC ASPECTS OF SOLAR ENERGY IN BLACKSBURG

The push towards solar energy is difficult to ignore. It seems to be sensationalized and simplified on various media platforms. So if the push towards solar energy has bipartisan support, the President’s initiative, over 80 billion dollars of government funding, what politics are hindering solar power? Solyndra, an American solar panel company, received over 500 million dollars from the US government, and a personal visit from Barack Obama (Graeber, Leonnig & Stephens). The so-called Golden Child of the American solar initiative has since claimed bankruptcy and abandoned over 1,000 jobs (Leonnig & Stephens). The reported cause for Solyndra’s demise was that “[they] failed to attract a buyer who would keep the plant operating” (Leonnig & Stephens). In other words, the general American public was not as interested as President Obama in the implementation of solar energy. Even when creating jobs, there is lackluster desire for American solar power plants.
In Blacksburg, there is an even bigger conflict. The thought that solar energy helps to create jobs wasn’t enough to win the hearts and minds… but what happens when solar power threatens to take away jobs? In a region where coal mining is a prevailing lifestyle, the threat of a move away from coal and towards solar energy is devastating to many communities. Politically charged groups, like Friends of Coal, feel personally threatened by Obama’s clean energy initiatives. They boast that nearly half of American homes are powered by coal (Langsley). As part of the Obama administration’s push towards clean energy, they have mandated strict coal mining regulations that threaten to close mines and limit production. The coal community has responded in the form of propaganda; “Friends of Coal” bumper stickers adorn Blacksburg vehicles, and the interstates in West Virginia are outlined by billboards that declare “Obama’s No Job Zone” (Langsley). In total, many inhabitants in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia feel that not only are Obama’s solar incentives taking away their jobs, but also taking away their heritage.

Besides, only a minority of the Virginia Tech community is interested in solar power. Would things be different if the money that funded the latest 48 by 108 foot LED scoreboard in Lane Stadium was spent on solar power panels for dorms (Gaona)? It’s a silly question to ask because it would never happen. At the end of the day, Virginia Tech is a business. Football creates far more revenue than dormitories, as things stand; so no one would go about investing more money in a non-commercial interest. The most well known solar-powered building on the campus is the sustainability trailer behind Randolph Hall. Though the program has produced award-winning Lumenhaus structures, the general consensus is that is it an eyesore in the backyard of the campus (www.lumenhaus.com). Moreover, many students are against solar energy on campus, claiming that it would make their tuition rise. One student claims that, due to student debt, a rise in tuition would result her leaving to find a more affordable school, and that most all of her peers agree (Local Impact of Solar Energy).

The cost to convert to solar energy is not easily marketable. The Solarize Blacksburg project boasts that loans are available to finance the installation of solar panels. A chart reveals that the base package for an average to larger home is a little over $100/month (Solarize Blacksburg). Sounds doable, but this figure only goes up. The government awarded tax credits for If the loan applicant’s credit is less that sparkling, the monthly bill will increase due to interest rates. In order to ensure continual power and avoid outages, it is suggested that solar consumers opt for a more advanced solar panel package. Lastly, the website, although trying to promote itself, boasts (only) a 50/50 chance of a home being a suitable candidate for solar energy (Solarize Blacksburg). So unless a home’s electricity bill is consistently greater than $130+ each month, the switch to solar energy is not a wise accounting decision.

Implementation and Industry Aspects of Solar Energy in Blacksburg

Solar energy implementation is easily visualized in theory, but takes much more analysis and planning in actuality. Blacksburg and Virginia Tech have both made commitments and initiatives to help incorporate solar energy into their networks that power the town and the campus; this can help pave the way for the entire area. The implementation is done through the Solarize Blacksburg Project and the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment and Sustainability Plan(VT News). These initiatives are driven by the desire to see solar energy take hold in the area and be a part of the electrical grid powering the Blacksburg area; this means there is drive to bring solar energy into more than just theory and huge projects around the world. This energy source and potential for sustainable power could be right in the backyard of Southwest Virginia(Soalrize).
The implementation of solar energy has great potential for the Blacksburg area if the installation and use of this type of energy can begin to take a hold in the area. One of the biggest problems with implementing sustainable energy (solar energy) is getting people and business from an area to agree to use it so that residents and inhabitants of an area can see how it works and the benefits(Benefits). The Solarize Blacksburg plan can give solar energy an opportunity in the residential side of Blacksburg because it will allow people to install solar energy systems to power part of their homes and then all residents can see and hear about how the systems work(Solarize). The Virginia Tech project gives anyone who knows or is associated with the University the chance to witness a leader in the sustainability movement implement solar energy on the campus and how the downside is mainly in cost of installation and time to acquire savings on the investment(Benefits). The university installed the solar energy system on the top level of a parking garage so there is no undesired heating or reflection of sunlight on the inhabitants and occupants of the campus.

The potential for solar energy to change the industries and businesses that are all over Southwest Virginia is also viable in this scenario of implementing solar energy alongside current fossil fuel energy sources. A key industry is the construction industry that is constantly growing and changing in any part of the world, but in Blacksburg there is always a growing population and university that make it an important part of the current business/industry structure of the area. The Blacksburg area currently has residential complexes being built such as the Edge and homes throughout the town and the University has projects going such as the indoor practice facility for football and a research center(Blacksburg). This shows potential for attempts to use solar energy as a secondary or primary power source and the incorporate a sustainable energy pioneer into the Solarize project. Construction could be saved or hurt by the implementation of solar energy in the Blacksburg area. The benefits would be eventual savings on the investment to sue solar energy for aspects of construction projects like temporary power, jobsite trailers, and even large equipment (in the future). However, the initial investment and cost of this energy source would drive up pricing to build these construction projects from homes to campus projects (Research & Resources). The greatest threat for implementing this energy source is getting the construction companies and contractors to use this power instead of what “they have used for the past 50 years”(Research & Resources). Also, many contractors don’t have the economic or financial feasibility to implement solar energy due to initial costs even with government incentives(Solarize).

However, the residential project Solarize Blacksburg has the most reasonable implementation plan for the Blacksburg area asking for volunteers from those residents who wish to give solar energy a try. The initiative will show that solar energy can even come to a rural area like Blacksburg and not just major cities or highly populated areas. The benefit of this green and sustainable energy in the area would be the decreased emissions from the growing number of multifamily and single family residences in Blacksburg(Solarize). The other major benefit would be the eventual savings acquired from not paying for electricity from power companies. Finally, the installation of solar energy systems in the residential sector of Blacksburg could help turn the area into a Virginia leader for sustainable energy and to show other towns and cities how solar energy can actually be a feasible alternative to the current energy plans.

Name Proposal Work Wiki Article Work Time Spent (approx.)
Runtian Lu Topic Discussion/ Brainstorm Technology Aspects of Solar Energy/ Revision 12 Hours
Caroline Wilson Revision/Final Draft Political and Economics of Solar Energy/ Revision 12 Hours
Joe Gentry Topic Discussion/ Brainstorm Environmental Aspects of Solar Energy/ Revision 10 Hours
Van VanKerckhove Topic Discussion/Article Outline Abstract/ Implementation & Industry of Solar Energy/ Revision 11 Hours

WORK CITED

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Gaona, Melissa. "Virginia Tech upgrades videoboards at Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum." WDBJ7 6 Sept. 2013: n. pag. Print.

Graeber, Daniel J. "Why Is There so Much Political Energy Behind Solar Power?." The Huffington Post 14 Feb. 2012, sec. Green.

Knier Gil. “How do Photovoltaics Work?” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 6 Aug, 2008. Web. 1 July, 2014.
Langsley, Kyle. "Coalfacts Online 2013." Coal Facts 8 Nov. 2013, 2013 ed.: n. pag. Print.

Leonnig, Carol D, and Joe Stephens. "Solyndra: Politics infused Obama energy program." That Washington Post 25 Dec. 2011, sec. Politics.

“Local Impact of Solar Energy.” Blogs.lt.vt.edu. 19 Oct. 2011.

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Pay Off." The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2013.
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Zachery Dean

The article goes into very good detail when describing the ways that solar energy could be used throughout Blacksburg, throughout the community and apartment complexes. As well, mentioning the major concern of people who work in coal mines or other such facilities possibly losing their jobs due to a complete switch to electric energy is eye opening and something that definitely needs to be considered. Overall it is easy to tell that the paper was well thought out and the topic was researched very well by your team. My one concern regarding such an energy switch is the amount of energy used up by the campus. Would Blacksburg be able to harness enough to not only provide for the community, but the campus as well, or in this case would the campus be a separate entity?


Ain Haas

The article is well written and describes very well many of the different concerns when considering the implementation of solar energy in Blacksburg. My suggestions would be to add a more layman explanation of all the technology that goes into solar energy systems along with the technical explanation. Also, I think there should be more statistics on exactly why and how solar technology would cause a rise in tuition costs and what exactly the negative effects would be in quantitative data. Even though it’s not that big of a problem, the article flows more like four related but distinctly separate articles. Changing the syntax and diction especially around the end and beginnings of each section could help the article feel more unified.


Taylor Spiegel

This article has a lot of detailed information and was well thought out. It has facts to prove its view point, and is separated into sections that make sense. I think that the article could have been broken up into paragraphs better to make it easier to read, and have the information better sorted. This article while stating how well solar energy would work did not disprove why other energy sources would not

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