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The conversion of sunlight into electricity is made possible with the special properties of semi-conducting materials. It can be harnessed through a range of ever-evolving technologies like solar heating, photovoltaics, solar thermal energy, solar architecture, molten salt power plants, and artificial photosynthesis. Learn more about solar solutions from IGS Solar.
As of 2018, American electric utility companies are planning new or extra renewable energy investments. These investments are particularly aimed at solar energy, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 being signed into law. The law retained incentives for renewable energy development. Utility companies are taking advantage of the federal solar investment tax credit before it permanently goes down to 10% after 2021. According to the March 28 S&P Global Market Intelligence report summary, "NextEra Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corp., and Dominion Energy Inc.’s utilities are among a number of companies in the sector contemplating significant solar investments in the near-term. Other companies, including Xcel Energy Inc. and Alliant Energy Corp., are undertaking large wind projects in the near-term, but are considering ramping up solar investments in the coming years."
DOE selected six companies for its 2007 Green Power Supplier Awards, including Constellation NewEnergy; 3Degrees; Sterling Planet; SunEdison; Pacific Power and Rocky Mountain Power; and Silicon Valley Power. The combined green power provided by those six winners equals more than 5 billion kilowatt-hours per year, which is enough to power nearly 465,000 average U.S. households. In 2014, Arcadia Power made RECS available to homes and businesses in all 50 states, allowing consumers to use "100% green power" as defined by the EPA's Green Power Partnership.
Materials for wind turbine parts other than the rotor blades (including the rotor hub, gearbox, frame, and tower) are largely composed of steel. Modern turbines use a couple of tons of copper for generators, cables, and such. Smaller wind turbines have begun incorporating more aluminum based alloys into these components in an effort to make the turbines lighter and more efficient, and may continue to be used increasingly if fatigue and strength properties can be improved. Prestressed concrete has been increasingly used for the material of the tower, but still requires much reinforcing steel to meet the strength requirement of the turbine. Additionally, step-up gearboxes are being increasingly replaced with variable speed generators, increasing the demand for magnetic materials in wind turbines. In particular, this would require an increased supply of the rare earth metal neodymium.
Currently, flying manned electric aircraft are mostly experimental demonstrators, though many small unmanned aerial vehicles are powered by batteries. Electrically powered model aircraft have been flown since the 1970s, with one report in 1957. The first man-carrying electrically powered flights were made in 1973. Between 2015–2016, a manned, solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse 2, completed a circumnavigation of the Earth.
Japan and China have national programs aimed at commercial scale Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP). The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) won the 2015 International SunSat Design Competition with this video of their Multi-Rotary Joint design. Proponents of SBSP claim that Space-Based Solar Power would be clean, constant, and global, and could scale to meet all planetary energy demand. A recent multi-agency industry proposal (echoing the 2008 Pentagon recommendation) won the SECDEF/SECSTATE/USAID Director D3 (Diplomacy, Development, Defense) Innovation Challenge.
The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in harmonizing the disparate estimates of life-cycle GHG emissions for solar PV, found that the most critical parameter was the solar insolation of the site: GHG emissions factors for PV solar are inversely proportional to insolation. For a site with insolation of 1700 kWh/m2/year, typical of southern Europe, NREL researchers estimated GHG emissions of 45 gCO2e/kWh. Using the same assumptions, at Phoenix, USA, with insolation of 2400 kWh/m2/year, the GHG emissions factor would be reduced to 32 g of CO2e/kWh.
The array of a photovoltaic power system, or PV system, produces direct current (DC) power which fluctuates with the sunlight's intensity. For practical use this usually requires conversion to certain desired voltages or alternating current (AC), through the use of inverters. Multiple solar cells are connected inside modules. Modules are wired together to form arrays, then tied to an inverter, which produces power at the desired voltage, and for AC, the desired frequency/phase.