New Perspectives


I love a good story, but haven’t written very many myself. I’ve always enjoyed writing — something about the visualization of my thoughts on a piece of paper or, in this case, a computer screen (#21century) relaxes my mind. Still, I wouldn’t call myself a writer. After attending Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in Chicago this past week, I think that’s about to change.

As a recent college graduate, I just spent four years surrounded by teens and 20-somethings trying to find a voice, searching for a niche and joining those around them who feel the same. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert. I enjoy talking to others and engaging in day-to-day conversations – Asking somebody how their day is going can really turn it around in the right direction. Case and point: Last Tuesday, my new friend, Alex, a multicultural student from Ontario, Canada, asked the CTA attendant how her night was going. She shot up in her chair and looked around for the speaker, saw Alex, and had the biggest smile on her face.

“I’m pretty good — Thanks for asking!”

He gave me a confused look. “Why was she so surprised?” he said, in his eastern-European accent. Alex is the son of international diplomats who have lived in more places than I’ve even visited. At his university and, from the sound of it, many places across the globe, it’s common practice to have this basic exchange of conversation.

So, why don’t more people behave like this? Are we too good to talk to the train attendants? Too busy? Or, are we just afraid of rejection? For me, it’s often been the latter. I’d like to say I do what I do to please myself and no one else… except that’s bullshit. Recently, I’ve admitted to myself that I do care what others think of me.

“Am I being judged?”

“Do I look cool?”

“Is this what’s expected of me?”

Petty fears like these will do nothing but stunt your growth as a person. Following my job search around graduation-time, I’ve accepted that it is OK to fail… sometimes. If you never step a foot outside of your comfort zone, never explore somewhere new and never take a risk, then you remain stationary and, honestly, boring as hell. Failure creates knowledge and the thought process of “Hey, that didn’t work. I need to change something else.”

So. What does all of this have to do with climate change?

After being accepted to the Climate Reality Project, I considered not attending. I thought, “What if it’s a crazy activist gathering?” I want to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being built just as much as the next liberal environmentalist out there (Did I just label myself a ‘liberal environmentalist’? Shit…), but I didn’t want to present slideshows on how to organize a protest and lobby (read: scream witty phrases painted on picket signs) outside of Republican congressmen’s offices. I didn’t want to give off the image of caring too much. That changed after the close of lectures on Thursday afternoon.

Integrity is the only thing you are truly accountable for. What good is it to stand-up for something and say that you care when your actions don’t follow suit? How can people fight for civil liberties, declare they want equal marriage for all people, and claim health care a universal right to every individual when they do nothing about it? You hear it all the time, but that’s because it’s so true: “We have to be the change we want to see.”

I walked away from my week at CRP with a lot of new information. Sure, I received mounds of  science facts, like how NASA climatologists have measured earth’s current C02 imbalances to be equal to 400 Hiroshima atomic bomb blasts – per day. But, more importantly, I learned how important it is to act for what you believe. One of the greatest mistakes we make as a society is to assume that somebody else is taking charge.

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

-Abraham Lincoln

Last week, each of the 50 American states and more than 70 countries united in Chicago to showcase a breadth of diversity and volume of knowledge that I have never been a part of before. These experiences have definitely encouraged me to continue writing and share my message, regardless of its size. Besides, when it comes down to it, what’s more important: Being true to yourself or playing it safe? We don’t have to be Ghandi. But we can at least ask the train attendant how her day is going.


Why the Keystone XL Pipeline Should Be Stopped – And What It Means to North Americans

To call the Keystone XL oil pipeline a controversial topic is an understatement. For Americans, the construction of the KXL delivers the possibility of independence from fossil fuel imports delivered by OPEC countries. For Canadians, it allows the prospect of huge domestic profits for a country sitting on top of the third largest oil reserve in the world. This past week, the NY Times ran an Op-Ed piece with new statements from Joe Oliver, the Canadian minister of natural resources, who finds it outrageous that any North American would reject the potential of the KXL. But do the pros really outweigh the cons?

Mr. Oliver is oversimplifying the argument. While he states that oil taken from California is “dirtier” than Canadian tar sands, he fails to realize that this is not a contest for who can refine the cleanest barrel of petroleum. Trailing only coal, diesel and gasoline produce the most carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy burned. Alberta’s reserves are not the solution to a much bigger problem. If KXL is approved, it will stall society’s necessary jump from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Instead of funding pipeline construction, capital investments could be applied toward research for the widespread integration of clean resources with the ability to power homes, businesses, and most importantly, transportation.

The Keystone XL project would not create long-term job opportunities. Of course, advancement of the pipeline would necessitate work for its development, but not lasting employment for North Americans. Alternatively, attention should focus on the booming growth of the sustainable energy sector – the global solar market grew 43 percent from 2011-2012 and is expected to increase an additional 35 percent in 2013.

Oliver also overlooks the nearly endless environmental consequences of continuing with KXL. Its construction has the potential to destroy pristine forests in Alberta, a location that contains not just profitable tar sands but the world’s third largest watershed that plays home to diverse ecosystems. Furthermore, the effort of pipeline assembly alone would generate mass amounts of CO2 emissions for the purpose of harvesting fuel to turn around and export it again; or, in short, let’s make CO2 to gather CO2 that can be sold via CO2-emitting transportation. Quite the scary cycle, if you ask me.

Change starts on a localized level with people who are passionate about providing Earth with a sustainable future. The combination of scientific research and advocacy of consequences give communities the necessary resources to gain support from President Obama and important government officials. By working together, North America is capable of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.

Photovoltaic Technology – The Catalyst of a Bright Future

Solar power is a promising route in the ongoing search for an alternative to coal and fossil fuels and photovoltaic panels are leading the race for a sustainable, affordable, and renewable energy source. Photovoltaics involve the conversion of light into electricity (or photons into voltage), better known as the PV effect.

Similar to the microelectronics industry, solar cells are based around semiconductor wafers with a positive and negative side. The semiconductor is surrounded by two contacts with an anti-reflective coating on the one facing the light source. Energy is produced when light strikes the contact and knocks atoms loose within the semiconductor that is connected to electrical conductors. These conductors capture the electrons and convert them into an electrical direct current, which in turn can be used to power a variety of systems.

The PV effect was discovered by Edmund Bequerel, a French physicist, in 1839. He found that when certain elements are exposed to light, such as silicon, they produce a small electric charge. Albert Einstein progressed this approach in 1905 and made legitimate breakthroughs in the explanation of the nature of light and the photoelectric effect.

The technology of photovoltaics is based upon Einstein’s discoveries and lead to production of the first working module by Bell Laboratories in 1954, known then as a solar battery. Initially, photovoltaic collectors were far too expensive to allow commercial adoption. Price has slowly become more affordable since the space boom of the 1960s. Drastic decline is visible in the current market as society searches for a dependable, sustainable energy source.

Performance of PV cells are represented by the current-to-voltage characteristic curve which, in turn, is affected by the device’s material properties and amount of total sunlight absorption. These are able to be shown in a one or two-diode model. Single diode equations assume a constant value for ideality factor of n. However, the ideality factor is a function of voltage across the system. High voltages yield an ideality of factor near one, while low voltages produce a factor closer to two. Figures 2 and 3 below illustrate single and double-diode models:


Figure 1: Single diode model


Figure 2: Double diode model 

Structures of individual photovoltaic cells are known as modules and generally hold 40 cells. Modules produce electricity at a specific voltage, typically at the standard 12 volts, but overall output depends on the total amount of sunlight that reaches the cells. Residential homes using solar energy have a range of 10 to 20 panels to provide sufficient power. A multitude of modules combined into one system is called an array. Arrays are used to power large-scale industrial applications.

Solar panel efficiency is defined by the output per given area, affected by a variety of factors such as panel construction, positioning, temperature, and shading. There are three types of solar efficiency: module, area (density) and cell. Module efficiency is a measurement of how well a panel converts sun energy into usable energy. If the sun shines 200 Watts worth of energy onto a module and 30 watts of electricity are generated, then a panel has 15% module efficiency.

Area (density) efficiency is the calculation of the amount of usable energy per area in Watts per foot squared. If a module produces 420 Watts of energy with a 30 square foot panel, its density is 14 Watts per square foot. This measurement of efficiency is the most important to look at if one is working with a limited amount of roof space.

Cell efficiency is the final option when gauging the effectiveness of a solar module. It is the same as module efficiency but limited to a single cell on the panel. While many media outlets report this statistic, it is generally unreliable for a consumer looking to purchase photovoltaics because it is an inaccurate measurement of the total kWh production. Individual cells currently average around 15% output are typically single junction with one layer of silicone per cell. This means that of the total sunlight captured for each cell in a panel, only 15% of the sun’s energy is retained and converted into usable electricity.

Certain cells have been engineered with multiple layers of silicone, known simply as multi junction cells, to produce upwards of 40% output. Each level of silicone is arranged to capture a different frequency of light. However, such solar cells remain very expensive and are used almost exclusively in space and satellite technology. Record cell efficiency stands at 44% as of late 2012 with the improving technology of multi-band 3 junction solar cells. The experiment named SJ3 converted 43.5% of the energy in sunlight into electrical energy — a rate that has stimulated demand for the cell to be used in concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) arrays for utility-scale energy production. CPV systems are thought by many to be the future of photovoltaics because they use less cell material which tends to be the most expensive part of an array. The concentrator efficiently uses inexpensive materials like plastic or metal to capture sunlight on a large area and focus it into a smaller area that houses the solar cell(s). The diagram below shows how sunlight is magnified by the concentrators, allowing the record breaking cell efficiency as stated above:


Figure 3: CPV cell

Panel construction is limited in the sense that most consist of a glass housing for the semiconductor wafer, contacts, and cells. Some involve an adjustable scope that reduces the reflection of any light not striking the panel at a perfect 90º angle. The positioning of panels in adequate sunlight is crucial to generating a high output. Many systems are wired together in a continuous series, similar to a set of decorative Christmas lights. If one of a panel’s cells are affected by partial shading, the entire panel will see a drop in efficiency.

Figure 4 below illustrates a standardized comparison between popular photovoltaic solar panel options as of 2012 (4). All models are rated at 200 W and organized by density and module efficiency from high to low:


 Figure 4: Photovoltaic panel comparisons

This next comparison factors in price and PTC rating, or the panel’s output tested in real world conditions at PVUSA in Davis, California. Ratings are usually 10-15% lower than the STC rating found in a lab or given to consumers by the manufacturers. While Figure 5, shown below, is more informative, it also lacks true consistency due to absence of a standardized wattage rating.


Figure 5: PTC photovoltaic panel comparisons 

The outlook for the future of photovoltaics is extremely promising. According to data collected from Robert Margolis of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, photovoltaic module pricing (not including installation) has shown an incredible drop in pricing since 1980 (8). Figure 6 below shows a decline of nearly half every 10.5 years, which equals an estimated 6% drop per year.


Figure 6: Decline of PV price from 1980-2025

The break-even cost of PV systems is the point where PV-generated electricity equals out to the same price as grid electricity and is typically expressed in $/W of a system. Margolis has estimated that 2015 will be the “magic year” for solar panels to actually cost less than grid electricity under the following assumptions: 1.) Photovoltaic installation prices will be twice that of the modules, 2.) the price decline of modules will follow the same curve as above, 3.) today’s average grid power of $0.10/kWh, 4.) the inflation rate for grid power will remain at a 3% increase over the market inflation rate, 5.) one watt of photovoltaic capacity one kWh of electricity per year.

Are photovoltaic technologies and solar energy the solution to the question of “Where will we get our future energy from?” Possibly. Are they a step in the right direction for fossil fuel independence? Absolutely.