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Let’s Shed Light on Solar Energy

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

It’s not grabbing headlines, but St. Croix Valley communities are beginning to adopt renewable energy and looking at installing more solar. One local initiative is “Solar for Stillwater Schools.”

The City of River Falls, Wisconsin established Renewable River Falls, becoming the first municipality in the state to power city buildings using 100% renewable energy. They also worked with Tattersall Distillery on their new 75,000-square-foot facility’s rooftop solar array, the largest of any craft distillery in the nation. It provides all their electricity, and they sell the excess back to the city.

Solar’s endless energy supply for human activities will fuel our world for centuries to come. Essential to the growth of plants, food production, biological diversity, and carbon capture, solar is a free fuel that will power our future as we transition away from fossil fuels.

Here’s a quickie primer: There are two kinds of solar energy technology. The first, called solar photovoltaics (solar PV), converts solar radiation to electricity. The second, solar thermal, uses the sun to heat fluids or air and can run a turbine to produce electricity.

Solar PV is great when the sun shines but presents challenges when it doesn’t – certain seasons, too much cloud cover, and at night. Just 16-20% of solar radiation gets converted to electricity, squandering 80-84%. This low efficiency decreases by .5% over time.

Here are more obstacles we need to overcome: The useful life of PV systems is about 25 years with limited maintenance. Panels contain hazardous materials, presenting a safety issue during production. They need “end-of-life” management. And PV technologies require dedicated land space, causing local land-use concerns. The Scandia City Council, for instance, placed a moratorium on its solar farm ordinance, limiting new installations within city limits for up to a year after residents complained.

Advanced storage systems must be designed to hold energy for days and beyond, able to charge electric vehicles, homes, and other demand needs. The challenge is that current rechargeable battery technology uses scarce minerals – lithium and cobalt – sourced from non-US countries. To make matters worse, mining operations for these minerals take a lot of energy and water, are often unsafe for workers, and include child labor

But the good news is that battery storage is improving. A June 2021 study, “Examination of Non-lithium Battery Energy Storage Concepts,” says a variety of non-Li battery technologies are under development with higher efficiencies, reduced cost, and the use of waste materials. And costs have dropped 70% in the last decade. PV can be one of the cheapest energy sources. In 2019, 40% of new electricity generation was solar. New PV technology that will be twice as efficient is near commercially ready.

Transition to a new energy future is necessary and underway, with utilities joining the cause. Major corporations like Google are committed to sourcing renewable energy for their operations and supply chains. As we get past solar PV’s downside, the sun holds tremendous promise for a bright future.

Written By Timothy Nolan - 6/13/22


Renewable River Falls Supplement material
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