Part I: What’s the Deal with Wind and Solar Energy?

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series produced by The Hub@TTU’s staff examining the state of energy in Texas. 

By Haley Turner and Courtney White

Anna Thomas, the assistant research professor and associate managing director at the National Wind Institute, said the United States Department of Energy has set benchmarks regarding how much of the nations’ electricity demand will be powered by renewable energy.

It wants 10 percent of the nation’s electricity demand to be powered by renewable energy by 2020, 20 percent by 2030, and 35 percent by 2050.

Renewable energy has become important in the lives of many consumers looking to conserve energy, become cost efficient, develop economically and obtain a high value electricity supply.

Solar panels on the roof of a home. (ZMEScience)

Solar energy is created when the sun’s light is converted into electricity that is used commercially or residentially. There are two different solar technologies. One way is photovoltaic (PV) and the other is concentrating solar power (CSP).

Chris Pattison, professor of wind energy at Texas Tech, said that solar energy uses silicone that has specific impurities that help electrons jump orbitals to produce electricity.

“When electrons jump orbitals, energy is released and that energy goes from what we call excess electrons to electron holes and we catch those electrons as they try to get through there to create electricity,” he said.

Pattison said solar panel systems work by sunlight hitting the panel on the roof of a home. The panels convert the energy to direct current which then flows to an inverter, then the inverter converts it to alternating current which is then ready for use in your home.

“You can put the panels on homes and offset your power requirements directly at the home or some businesses put solar panels over parking structures and then harness that power to feed their building so that they don’t have to pay for as much energy,” he said.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Texas in particular has one of  the largest solar resources in the United States and a growing electricity demand. From 2013 to 2017, there has been a generous spike in the number of solar panel installations in homes across Texas.

Pattison said that in Texas, solar power is expanding rapidly.

Number of solar installations annually. (SEIA)

“Texas has seen the most growth in terms of residential installations,” he said.

Although residential installations have grown, Pattison said that large utility scale installations aren’t seeing the same growth.

Large utility scale installations aren’t near as popular in the state of Texas as they are in New Mexico, Arizona and California,” he said.

According to the Texas Solar Energy Society, the demand for jobs in the solar industry has increased. There have been over 9,000 solar related jobs in the past year producing an estimated $4.7 billion in economic impact. Within the next year, the industry is looking to produce more jobs as more people are interested in using solar energy. As a nation, more than 260,000 jobs have been produced as the industry continues to grow.

Pattison said that solar power could be a great investment residentially, but it depends on the consumer.

“If you are trying to cut back on your carbon footprint or make a contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases, then solar is definitely the way to go.”

Pattison said if you are looking into making the switch to solar energy there are a few things you should know.

“If you are using it residentially, typically you are not home during the day. Solar only produces power during the day and that is the time homes have their lowest consumptions,’ he said.

Pattison also said that the power that you don’t consume is recycled.

“Any excess power, in other words, power that is produced for your home but isn’t being used actually flows back onto the grid and it allows the grid operator to sell your power,”he said.

Pattison said that you don’t benefit from solar power at night.

“If you are home during the night and using power from the grid, you’re not getting any benefit from the solar because it’s night time,” he said.

Pattison said that it is important to research solar energy before making the switch.

Wind energy, like solar power, is another renewable energy source that is striving to increase its supply and value in the energy market.

According to the United States Department of Energy, wind energy uses wind turbines to convert kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power. The generator in the turbine then converts the mechanical power into electricity sent through transmission lines for use.

Diagram of how wind energy works.(Hydro Tasmania)

Thomas said there is a big push from the Senate to focus on big data, advanced technology and the expansion of renewables, but the wind industry is at a point where the turbine has reached a good amount of energy produced.

Like any renewable energy source, there are setbacks for energy production as well.

Thomas said wind farms cause energy production loss because of the location of some wind turbines. She said researchers in the industry are beginning to study  where turbines can be placed to make better adjustments to the wind, atmospheric conditions, and environmental concerns.

“One day, we want wind farms to be able to shut down when a flock a birds start flying through,” she said. “So, we do focus on protecting wildlife and their habitats.”

As far as atmospheric conditions, Thomas said flat land is geographically ideal for placing wind turbines, because there are no mountains or buildings to block the wind flow.

Wind turbines in West Texas (Photo by Haley Turner)

Thomas said in the end however, it all depends on what kind of energy is best exposed in a certain area.

Although location really matters when it comes to energy production, wind farm location is not always determined by where the wind blows the best.

Thomas said wind farms are built in Sweetwater, Lubbock and Roscoe, because there are transmission lines to support them.

“Texas has put insane amounts of money into transmission lines to get the energy where it needs to be,” she said. “Access to transmission lines are more important than wind farms, because you have to be able to have the best transmission of electricity to the grid.”

The question is: will wind energy continue to flourish or diminish as time goes on?

Thomas said the future of wind energy is positive, but a big concern is the production tax credit inflation (PTC) in taxes per kilowatt per hour.

She said the wind industry depends on the tax credit, because it makes building wind farms more affordable for companies and manufacturers.

“The way it’s looking is that there’s a concern that it has been extended until 2019, and it might end in 2019,” Thomas said. “If it does end, the industry will be affected and have to take a step back. As long as the tax credit is there, we will be moving forward positively.”

Wind energy course professor Andrew Buchok agrees that the wind energy industry is moving in the right direction, even though there could be some improvements.

Currently, wind is about 6 percent of everything in the U.S., Buchok said.

“The industry literally changes every day,” Buchok said. “One of the biggest problems right now are gears, and all of their teeth break off and you’re down until you lift a 20-ton piece of equipment 80-feet into the air again.”

Buchok said the new talk is about direct drives. He said the direct drives eliminate all gears and the maintenance cost will go down five-fold and downtime to nothing.

He said the price of wind energy specifically, however, is the lowest price of energy around due to the inexistence of a levelized cost of energy for wind.

Aviation and birds are other things that affect wind turbines and call for further improvements in the industry.

“Towers attract bugs, bugs attract varmints, varmints attract eagles – hit an eagle and it’s a million dollars,” Buchok said. “Accidents are always going to happen and now we’re taking approaches to litigate that.”

In further regards to environment, Buchok said wind energy has the least environmental impact.

“Thats where we thrive: on the environmental side,” he said. “Everyone always says ‘we want to leave the world a better place,’ and that’s where we come in.”

In west Texas, wind energy is popular because of weather conditions in the region.

“Each state has what they call an RPS or a renewable portfolio standard and if they don’t meet that they fall short of the government’s goal and they can get fined for it,” he said.

Fortunately, Texas exceeds the amount so the state is able to sell tit to neighboring regions and those regions will get to claim the renewable portfolio standard.

Buchok said the only challenges that wind energy faces has to do with it’s unpredictability.

“We can only forecast a day in advance and that’s only 30% accurate,” he said.

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