ENVIRONMENT: Harvesting electricity from the sun

The power from the sun can be converted into energy via panels.

Early this year, the PetroGreen Energy Corporation (PGEC) and Mapúa Malayan Colleges Mindanao (MMCM) signed a memorandum of agreement where the former would install a 360-kilowatt power solar rooftop power project inside the campus.

“The groundbreaking collaboration… reflects (our) dedication to sustainable development and incorporating green technology into education,” said Dr. Dodjie S. Maestrecampo, MMCM president and chief executive officer. “Not only does it promote the use of renewable energy, but it also serves as an educational resource for our students, demonstrating our commitment to innovative and socially responsible learning.”

F.G. Delfin, Jr., the president and chief executive officer of PGEC, said that the solar installation also aims to inspire students in Mindanao to specialize in energy science, engineering, and environment-related courses, so they become skilled professionals who will help propel our country’s future progress.

According to Engr. Ryan Erik F. Quindoza, it is PGEC’s second renewable project of such kind but the very first in Mindanao. The first rooftop solar power project was installed in Binondo, Manila two years ago.

“Once operational, we estimate that Mapúa MCM will benefit from a 36% annual reduction in its electricity cost,” said Engr. Quindoza. He added the rooftop solar project is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2024.

Currently, the MMCM consumes about one megawatt of electricity per month. With a reduction of 36% of its electricity bills, the solar power project is a great saving for the school.

The industry standard for most solar panels’ lifespans is 25 to 30 years. Most reputable manufacturers offer production warranties for 25 years or more.

The energy from the sun is free. At night, people pay for electricity so they can have light. So why not harvest the power from the sun and convert it into electricity at night? That’s what solar power is all about.

“Solar is the fastest-growing form of energy in history,” declared Stephen Leahy, an award-winning environmental journalist and author. “In 2004, it took a year to install a gigawatt of solar panels globally. In 2010, a month. In 2016, a week. In 2023, a day. In 2024, half a day.”

Leahy said the world is now “in the solar century.” As he explained it, “The speed of the clean energy transition has been underestimated by virtually every expert, every energy guru, and certainly every political leader.”

One big reason is not understanding solar as energy-transporting technology. It isn’t a source of energy like coal, oil and gas. “Solar panels simply transport the freely available energy from sunlight and wind,” Leahy pointed out.

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (OEERE) of the US Department of Energy, there are two main types of solar energy technologies: the photovoltaics (PV) and the concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP).

Most Filipinos are familiar with PV, which was discovered in 1839 by 19-year-old French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. PV arrays usually involve solar panels, a collection of dozens or even hundreds of solar cells.

“When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the PV cells in the panel,” OEERE explains. “This energy creates electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow.”

Leahy said roughly 20 to 25% of the energy in sunlight hitting the panel is converted into electricity on average. New panel technologies may get this to 30%, and even 35%.

The CSP systems, on the other hand, use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat, which can then be used to produce electricity or stored for later use. It is used primarily in very large power plants.

The National Geographic said CSP plants were first developed in the 1980s. The largest facility in the world is a series of plants in Mojave Desert in the U.S. state of California. This Solar Energy Generating System generates more than 650 gigawatt-hours of electricity every year. Other large and effective plants have been developed in Spain and India.

“Solar is the most abundant energy source on the planet,” wrote Martina Igini of Earth.Org, adding that one huge advantage of the technology “is that just a tiny fraction of the sunlight we get every day can provide a huge amount of energy.”

Igini cited data provided by the US Department of Energy which said that “an hour and a half of sunlight that reaches the planet’s surface generates enough power to meet all of humanity’s energy consumption for an entire year.”

Another advantage of solar power is that it generates minimal greenhouse gas emissions. “Studies demonstrate that it has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels over its life cycle,” Igini pointed out. “Even though PV modules and other components are made of materials that are mined and processed and thus generate some levels of emissions, solar is still undoubtedly a carbon-smart energy source whose lifetime emissions are insignificant when compared to coal and natural gas.”

Some comparisons: A coal power plant releases on average 25 times more emissions than the ones produced by a solar power system. Similarly, a natural gas power plant, despite being less polluting than coal, still generates 10 times the amount of emissions generated by a solar array.

Solar power is a form of renewable energy source. “Renewable energy offers tremendous potential and combined with improvements in energy efficiency, could fuel the economy of the future,” said Janet Sawin, an expert on international energy and environmental policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute.

“The future is in renewable energy — not in outdated and environmentally destructive fossil fuels,” agreed an official of the Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

To convert the sun into energy, a solar power plant is needed.

The cost of electricity in the Philippines is touted to be among the highest in Southeast Asian countries, according to a paper penned for the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development of the Ateneo de Manila-Department of Economics.

In the Philippines, the kilowatt per hour (kWh) is $0.16. In comparison, the cost of electricity in Thailand and Indonesia is $0.10/kWh while in Malaysia, it is even lower at $0.05/kWh. At $0.18/kWh, Singapore surpassed the country’s record.

Industry players said about 50% of the country’s power generation comes from coal, with natural gas and renewables accounting for just more than 20%. The remaining comes from oil-fired boilers. The country’s electricity consumption is expected to triple by 2040 – from the 90.2 TWh (Terawatt-hour) in 2018 – due to its rapidly growing economy.

Right now, solar power provides only two percent of the energy needs of Mindanao. If only the power from the sun is totally harnessed, the figure could go up to about ten percent.

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy,” said American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison. “What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

If you produce your own electricity by using solar power, you are actually introducing long term savings and you are no longer fully dependent on power providers. Even during brown-outs, you can still enjoy the electricity which you yourself generated using the power of the sun.

But there’s a dark side of solar energy as well. “An undoubted disadvantage of solar energy is that this technology is not equally efficient around the world,” Igini wrote. “While solar power can be generated on a cloudy day, some level of daylight is still required in order to harness the sun’s energy, and the amount of energy that can be produced varies greatly depending on many factors, such as the amount and quality of direct sunlight that the panels receive as well as the size, number, and locations of the panels themselves.”

Another disadvantage: solar power plants are not the most environmentally friendly option. “The carbon footprint of solar energy is minimal,” Igini stressed. “However, this renewable still has some aspects, mainly related to land use and waste generation, that can still harm the environment.

For one, solar power plants require space. For example, a solar power plant to provide electricity for 1,000 homes would require almost 13 hectares of land. That span of land could be used for food production.

“Another factor to consider is the management and disposal of hazardous materials such as metals and glass needed to build some components of solar infrastructure that are energy-intensive to produce and thus responsible for the generation of carbon emissions,” Igini wrote.

“Building PV cells and panels also requires some hazardous chemicals and heavy metals. To avoid harming the environment, such materials necessitate careful management and disposal procedures once the solar plant’s life comes to an end,” Igini added.

In the United States, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that by 2050, solar energy systems could be responsible for up to 78 million tons of waste.

Should solar power as energy sources still be pursued with all these disadvantages? Igini answered positively. “There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ energy source. From nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable resources, all of them have many advantages but also some disadvantages, solar energy included,” she explained.

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