Solar energy is perhaps one of the quickest adopted forms of alternative energy. It can be installed in open fields, on rooftops, or on top of the water. Not to mention that its price has dropped substantially since the mid-2000s, making solar a strong contender on the shift away from fossil fuels.
As with many things in life, particularly those within the scientific realm, there is nuance to solar energy.
Depending on where it is located, how efficiently it is running, and a few other factors, this renewable energy source's life-cycle assessment will vary accordingly.
The light that the sun emits is known as solar radiation. Depending on the time of year, different parts of the world see higher solar radiation levels than others. For example, Australia vs. England. The two main ways to capture solar radiation are via photovoltaic (PV) solar panels or concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP).
PV panels work by capturing the sun's radiation via solar cells and then converting it into usable energy. CSP operates by having a mirror-like reflective surface that concentrates the sunlight onto nearby receivers. The receivers can then convert that collected sunlight into heat and then either store it for later use or directly convert it to usable electricity.
Of the two, PV solar panels are far more common and therefore have seen more mainstream adoption.
Solar Energy Innovation
The growing consumer demand for alternative energy has prompted many engineers and researchers to get creative with these PV panels, producing designs and implementation techniques that stand alone for ingenuity, such as installing them on international monuments or even creating solar artwork.
Since the sun is ever constant, if it's shining, energy can be harvested. Moreover, after a few decades under surveillance and study, many life-cycle assessments have found that solar energy carries a far lower environmental impact than fossil fuels. Further, its ability to be implemented in lower socio-economic areas makes it a desirable contender in the energy market.
On the flip side, there are discrepancies to solar energy that many scientists are currently working to address. One of the main ones is that energy cannot be harvested on a 24-hour basis since very few places in the world have sunlight that often. This means that power would be contingent on the sun's patterns, taking away a factor of reliability. Despite this, there is the ability to save harvested energy for future use via battery storage, though this technique is not foolproof.
Another discrepancy lies within the amount of land that solar panels need to produce energy. Though in recent years, many innovative designs have shown that solar panels can be installed on an array of different terrains, such as on water, buildings, vehicles, canals, etc., this technique has not been adopted as thoroughly as on open land.
In comes the idea for dual-purpose solar panels. We have already seen the notion of using them as a defense against drought, but what if there was another ingenious way to make solar panels even more effective?
A solar farm in Colorado is doing just that.
Redefining Solar Farms
Byron Kominek has set up a solar farm on his family's land that doubles as a garden. The ground was previously used for farming hay, though that business was quickly drying up. So instead, Kominek decided to try an alternative route by setting up a community solar garden.
The Boulder County regulators were initially hesitant to let Kominek install solar panels, but he eventually convinced them.
"They said, land's for farming, so go farm it," Kominek says. "I said, well, we weren't making any money, you all want to be 100% renewable at some point, so how about we work together and sort this out."
Kominek then partnered with the Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Lab to create a way to make the land underneath the panels farmable.
Kominek used his family's farm as collateral to obtain the $2 million needed for the project. He got to work last year on the beginning stages, and by this summer, he was able to see the fruits of his labor. He installed 3,200 solar panels attached to an 8-foot tall post that are spaced wide enough apart to drive his tractor through.
Kominek explained that the vegetation below only receives staggering sunlight throughout the day because of the solar panels. At first, he was hesitant about this, but he quickly found out that the varied exposure is actually helping the plants thrive and even prevents some water from evaporating.
Kominek's farm, known as agrivoltaics, is a relatively new concept, with only about a dozen other farms implementing similar ideas throughout the US.
Of the few studies conducted, they show optimism in this sub-sector and have demonstrated that this process can be incredibly beneficial in water-scarce areas. For example, Greg Barron-Gafford, a University of Arizona professor who has taken it upon himself to study this growing concept, found that some crops grown under solar panels need up to 50% less water.
This finding, coupled with Kominek's success, is truly promising. When fully running, Kominek believes his solar farm will power up to 300 homes annually. The best part? His family will still be able to farm the land just as before.
This growing concept shows just how much drive, resources, and ingenuity can genuinely make a difference.