Elon Musk recently announced plans to build a ‘virtual power plant’ and install solar panels and Tesla batteries in 50,000 homes in the state of South Australia, in Australia. For free. Billed as the world’s largest virtual power plant, the scheme is scheduled to be finished over the next four years. It will reduce energy bills across households by as much as 30% through a system in which Tesla effectively uses state roof space to distribute power. This explains the ‘virtual’ nature of the power plant. Essentially, each pair of solar panel and Tesla battery will generate electricity for the South Australian home in which it is installed. Any excess energy generated will then be routed back to the grid. So instead of having a centralised ‘big battery’, the power plant is the entire distributed network of electricity generating solar panels.
What’s the point of removing a centralised and physical battery? There is more security for the entire energy network. The premise of having energy from home solar and battery systems is that the excess energy generated by each household can then be dispatched back to the grid and provide energy for the rest of South Australia, if needed. If it is unclear how this works, think of how cryptocurrency works, or even the Internet for that matter. Each household is essentially a node in which whatever electricity is generated pools back into the network, providing spare capacity in times of necessity. Thus through sharing surplus energy, all consumers and businesses can benefit. And the network is less prone to failure.With the state-wide blackout which occurred in 2016 cutting power to 850,000 consumers, Musk’s initiative provides a welcome solution mitigating future risk.
Renewable energy is the buzz word across environmental advocates. With the American president’s lack of support for efforts to advance research and development in the area, it is more important than before to understand firstly how clean energy can help the environment and consequently, why it should be implemented. The Trump administration moved to drastically cut funding for a Department of Energy program which supported the development of technologies reducing the effect of climate change. Stating fossil fuels as his primary economic motivation instead, this constitutes another stalling of research into methods such as solar powering and electric transportation.
Clean energy, that is power not derived from burning fossil fuels, produces an environment with much less pollution. Coal, a traditional fossil fuel, releases toxins through the process of burning it. This is because coal is composed mostly of carbon, and burning it consequently releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Studies have shown the increased greenhouse effect and further contribution to global warming of utilising coal as an energy source. In humans, excessive inhalation of pollutants cause respiratory illness and inflammation, with the ‘black lung disease’ a possible long term health consequence. Sulfur dioxide, another product, contributes to the advent of acid rain.Nitrogen oxides contribute to smog and further respiratory illness.
You only need to look at China to witness the negative impact of excessive fossil fuel combustion on the environment. In 2013, 366,000 premature deaths occurred. Coal accounts for approximately 40% of the harmful particle matter called PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere. Breathing this in causes numerous respiratory ailments, resulting in chronic lasting health effects. Furthermore, mercury is a by-product of coal-burning. Upon infiltrating the food production processes, the nervous system is attacked. This puts young children and babies in a particularly vulnerable position as their nervous systems are still developing. The process of mining coal itself ruins ecosystems and releases methane into the air and water. Methane is an example of a greenhouse gas released. In short, in effecting climate-changing pollution, coal is primarily responsible.
In 2017 and 2018, measures implemented by the Chinese government to reduce coal burning cleared up the pollution in the environment drastically, with bluer skies being an illustrative effect. Measures of PM2.5 dropped by a third, and the smog which presided over much of the nation’s north dissipated. However, coal-burning nonetheless represents a cheap method of keeping households warm, as illustrated by the drastic effect on poorer households upon China’s ban in 2017.
So how can solar panels replicate the same effect with a lesser impact on the environment? The sun itself epitomises renewable energy. At any time, it generates an unimaginably large amount of radiation which, if harnessed efficiently and stored appropriately, can represent a limitless source of energy to be converted into electricity or used to heat substances such as air and water. 18 days of sunshine contains the equivalent energy found in all of Earth’s reserves of oil, coal and natural gas.Unlike fossil fuels, there is no limit to how much can be captured. Through photovoltaic solar cells, sunlight is converted into electricity. This electricity can then be used to meet the utility requirements of households. Solar-produced electricity thus removes the greenhouse gases produced through traditional electricity production, resulting in healthier air quality and reduced weather extremes. Further, as solar power doesn’t depend on fuel, the problem of radioactive waste storage is mitigated. With more than hundreds of million tons of harmful waste produced through nuclear fission processes each year, subsequently staying radioactive for thousands more years, the environmental impact of solar energy as a replacement technology cannot be understated.