With the increased awareness of global warming and the subsequent search for more environmentally friendly ways to produce energy, many are turning to solar power as an alternative. While solar power can be used to produce the same kind of energy as conventional methods, it is a significantly more environment-friendly process. In the U.S., solar power accounts for about 1% of total energy usage – a figure that is expected to increase to 27% by 2040.
That makes it the third-largest source of energy used in the country (after fossil fuels and hydropower). However, that isn’t saying much. When expressed as a percentage, it’s still a tiny amount. When compared to the amount of energy used by Americans each year, it’s nothing more than a blip on the radar screen. With that in mind, let’s have a closer look at how solar energy is used in the U.S., including some interesting stats about solar power in America.
How Is Solar Power Defined in the U.S.?
When we talk about solar power, most people think about the sun shining brightly and the temperatures getting warmer as a result. While undoubtedly true, that is only part of the picture. In order to properly assess how solar energy is applied in the U.S., it is important to understand exactly what it means.
As the name would suggest, solar power is the use of the sun’s energy to create something. In this case, it is electricity. However, due to varying definitions in laws and codes, solar power can take various forms. In general, it can be defined as the collection of technologies used to convert the sun’s energy into usable electrical energy.
In most cases, that energy is stored in some sort of a reservoir (either chemical or mechanical) and later released in the form of electricity when needed. This is significantly more efficient and environmentally friendly than using fossil fuels to generate the same amount of energy. Of course, the technology behind solar power can be improved upon, but it’s still considered one of the more efficient, and thus, the most popular forms of renewable energy sources.
Where Does Solar Power Come From In The U.S.?
If you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere with abundant sunshine, then solar power tends to be a fairly straightforward answer to your energy needs. That said, even if you don’t live in an area where the sun shines brightly, you can still benefit from using solar power. In that case, you will need to find a way to capture the sun’s energy at some point during the day and store it for later use.
In the U.S., there are three main ways to utilize solar power: photovoltaic (PV), solar thermal, and concentrated solar power (CSP).
PV, or solar photovoltaic, systems are installed on the roof or the exterior walls of a building and use a combination of solar cells and lenses to collect sunlight and turn it into electricity. The cells act as miniature photovoltaic panels, converting sunlight directly into electrical energy. PV systems are considered the most basic and fundamental form of solar power, as they only collect and convert sunlight into electricity. Even if you live in a bright area with great sunlight, you will still need a PV system to start generating power.
Solar thermal systems are, essentially, large mirrors that collect sunlight and focus it onto a central point, where it is stored in a liquid or solid state. This stored heat can then be used to generate electricity via an ordinary thermodynamic cycle. The most significant advantage of solar thermal systems is that even if you don’t live in a region with abundant sunlight, you can still benefit from their use. It works even in cloudy weather or at night, allowing you to use more of the day than a conventional system. However, if you live in a region with heavy cloud cover and/or cold winters, then solar thermal systems may not be the best option for you.
The final option, concentrated solar power (CSP), uses mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight onto a small area, where it is then converted into electricity via a conventional thermodynamic cycle. CSP systems are, perhaps, the most practical option of the three, as they don’t require any additional hardware to be built (apart from the solar generator itself). They can be integrated quickly and easily into an existing power system and are, thus, the most flexible of the three options. For example, a single CSP system can generate as much as 500 kW of electricity – enough to power a small home. They tend to be more expensive than the other two options, but the cost is considered reasonable in comparison to the efficiency that you get. CSP systems are, generally, used in commercial buildings and large-scale power generation facilities (such as solar power projects) due to their ability to generate power quickly and efficiently – even in cloudy weather.
What Are the Most Popular Forms of Solar Power In The U.S.?
The most popular forms of solar power in the U.S. tend to be PV and CSP, with solar thermal a distant third. That said, let’s take a quick look at how those three forms of solar power have performed, and continue to perform, in the country since 2010.
PV power has benefited from substantial price reductions over the past five years, dropping by 24% from it’s high in 2011 to its 2017 lowest point. In early 2018, a typical 5-kilowatt residential solar system cost around $14,500, which generated about $28,000 in yearly electricity. By comparison, in 2010, a 5-kilowatt system cost about $32,000 and generated only about $20,000 in yearly electricity.
The situation is similar for concentrated solar power. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the cost of a 1-megawatt system dropped by 41% from 2014 to 2017 – from $93,000 to $54,500. A 1-megawatt system generates about $180,000 in yearly electricity.
Solar thermal systems are, however, more expensive to install than the other two options. But they have the advantage of being the most flexible and, thus, the most adaptable to various situations. For example, a 10-kilowatt solar thermal system can generate about $60,000 in yearly electricity, compared to about $40,000 for a 5-kilowatt residential PV system and $54,500 for a 1-megawatt concentrated solar power system. That means solar thermal is the cheapest option when you consider the total cost of ownership – even if it is more expensive initially.
How Is Solar Power Perceived In The U.S.?
Most people in the U.S. have little to no understanding of solar power – even those who are actively searching for alternatives to traditional energy sources. In fact, a poll conducted by the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) found that 83% of respondents didn’t know what solar power is, while 68% didn’t know how it works. Even among those who were familiar with solar power, only 14% had a very positive perception of it – while 79% had a negative perception.
Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents felt that solar power was expensive and unreliable. When respondents were asked what would change their mind, only 2% mentioned environmental concerns and 1% mentioned cost.
If you’re looking into solar power as an alternative energy source, then it’s essential that you understand how it works and what are the main benefits – as well as the significant downsides. With that in mind, let’s examine each of the three options in more detail.
What Is the Difference Between PV, CSP, and Solar Thermal?
PV, or solar photovoltaic, systems are the most basic and fundamental form of solar power. They are relatively simple to understand and, thus, the most popular form of solar power. They are installed on the roof or the exterior walls of a building and use a combination of solar cells and lenses to collect sunlight and turn it into electricity. The cells act as miniature photovoltaic panels, converting sunlight directly into electrical energy. The most significant advantage of PV systems is that even if you don’t live in a region with abundant sunlight, you can still benefit from its use. It works even in cloudy weather or at night, allowing you to use more of the day than a conventional system. However, if you live in a region with heavy cloud cover and/or cold winters, then PV systems may not be the best option for you.