University News

Warburg unpacks American solar energy potential

Author breaks down five largest opportunities for solar energy in United States in lecture, book

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2016

Philip Warburg spoke at length Wednesday on the potential for the expansion of solar power across the United States of America.

“Solar is a technology that most of us have very close proximity to in our daily lives, and, in that respect, it is very different from the traditional power technologies that we are accustomed to,” said author Philip Warburg in his lecture “From the Sidelines to Center-Stage: Opportunities and Challenges Facing Solar Power in America” Wednesday evening.

Warburg, author of “Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar Powered Future,” addressed the five main sectors in which solar energy is expanding: residential, commercial and industrial, utility-scale solar, brownfields and floating solar.

Nearly 40 percent of total nationwide power needs could be supplied from rooftop solar alone, according to a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in January, Warburg said. A new program developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “Mapdwell” uses laser-based light detection to create “a very precise picture of what the solar power potential would be of literally every rooftop in the cities that it has surveyed,” Warburg said. The program also allows for individuals interested in installing solar panels to get price and payback estimates for their homes, calculating in a 10-year loan at a 5 percent interest rate.

“Putting solar panels on my roof is something I’ve considered, but because of the price, I have not decided yet,” said Manuel Jourtain, a member of the Providence community. Warburg’s talk encouraged Jourtain to read more about the topic in the future.

“Between 60 and 65 percent of our commercial and industrial building stock is suitable” for solar panels, in comparison to 22 to 27 percent of housing because of shading and orientation problems, Warburg said. Walmart is one enterprise that has taken advantage of solar energy. The company now has solar panels on 330 of its distribution centers and retail complexes. Kohl’s and IKEA are following suit, as well as other “lesser-known solar pioneers.”

Utility-scale solar has the potential to supply the nation’s power needs in just 35 percent of the 88 million acres devoted to corn and ethanol production, Warburg said. In San Luis Obispo, CA, an over 1,400-acre solar plant provides energy for 100,000 California households. But the building of these plants poses threats to local wildlife. According to Warburg, land conservationists encourage keeping solar within “our built environment.” To address this concern, the California plant set aside 12,000 acres under conservation easement in order to protect wildlife and built temporary dens for the foxes and kangaroo rats that would be affected by construction.

Brownfields — abondoned industrial properties — pose another option for solar plants. If every brownfield in the country were converted into a solar plant, three times the nation’s energy needs would be produced, Warburg said. These brownfield-turned-solar plants have popped up in the south side of Chicago and east of Sacramento, CA.

One more promising solar industry is what Warburg called “floatovoltaics,” or floating solar. Solar panels are built to float on bodies of water, whose cooling effect actually makes solar energy capture up to 50 percent more efficiently, Warburg said. These solar rafts also provide the potential to help prevent evaporation. Warburg pointed out that this could be useful at Lake Mead, a 250-square-mile man-made lake that loses 6 percent of its volume every year due to evaporation.

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