One issue that has often raised concerns is the use of cadmium (Cd), a toxic heavy metal that has the tendency to accumulate in ecological food chains. It is used as semiconductor component in CdTe solar cells and as buffer layer for certain CIGS cells in the form of CdS.[141] The amount of cadmium used in thin-film PV modules is relatively small (5–10 g/m²) and with proper recycling and emission control techniques in place the cadmium emissions from module production can be almost zero. Current PV technologies lead to cadmium emissions of 0.3–0.9 microgram/kWh over the whole life-cycle.[121] Most of these emissions arise through the use of coal power for the manufacturing of the modules, and coal and lignite combustion leads to much higher emissions of cadmium. Life-cycle cadmium emissions from coal is 3.1 microgram/kWh, lignite 6.2, and natural gas 0.2 microgram/kWh.
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."[96]
The primary obstacle that is preventing the large scale implementation of solar powered energy generation is the inefficiency of current solar technology. Currently, photovoltaic (PV) panels only have the ability to convert around 24% of the sunlight that hits them into electricity.[125] At this rate, solar energy still holds many challenges for widespread implementation, but steady progress has been made in reducing manufacturing cost and increasing photovoltaic efficiency. Both Sandia National Laboratories and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), have heavily funded solar research programs. The NREL solar program has a budget of around $75 million [126] and develops research projects in the areas of photovoltaic (PV) technology, solar thermal energy, and solar radiation.[127] The budget for Sandia’s solar division is unknown, however it accounts for a significant percentage of the laboratory’s $2.4 billion budget.[128] Several academic programs have focused on solar research in recent years. The Solar Energy Research Center (SERC) at University of North Carolina (UNC) has the sole purpose of developing cost effective solar technology. In 2008, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a method to store solar energy by using it to produce hydrogen fuel from water.[129] Such research is targeted at addressing the obstacle that solar development faces of storing energy for use during nighttime hours when the sun is not shining. In February 2012, North Carolina-based Semprius Inc., a solar development company backed by German corporation Siemens, announced that they had developed the world’s most efficient solar panel. The company claims that the prototype converts 33.9% of the sunlight that hits it to electricity, more than double the previous high-end conversion rate.[130] Major projects on artificial photosynthesis or solar fuels are also under way in many developed nations.[131]
Nuclear power. After coal, the next largest source of our electricity is nuclear power. While nuclear plants don't cause air pollution, they do create radioactive waste, which must be stored for thousands of years. As accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl proved, nuclear plants also carry the risk of catastrophic failure. And nuclear power can be very expensive.
Photovoltaics were initially solely used as a source of electricity for small and medium-sized applications, from the calculator powered by a single solar cell to remote homes powered by an off-grid rooftop PV system. Commercial concentrated solar power plants were first developed in the 1980s. The 392 MW Ivanpah installation is the largest concentrating solar power plant in the world, located in the Mojave Desert of California.
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