Solar or Oil

May 19, 2009
By Kendrick Bradley SILVER, Bellingham, Washington
Kendrick Bradley SILVER, Bellingham, Washington
5 articles 0 photos 1 comment

Solar energy has never been thought of as a real competitor against oil but as oil sources dwindle and demand outstrips supply, alternative energy sources are becoming the next frontier. Although solar energy is not a complete replacement for oil, the development of solar energy could facilitate and stimulate technological advancements of other alternative energy sources like electric and hydrogen powered vehicles. Should government invest in alternative energy? In order to make an informed decision one must evaluate solar and oil’s likelihood of meeting the world’s energy needs.

According to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) solar energy is renewable, sustainable, and clean. Though minimal pollution does occur during the process of making the cells and distributing them, unlike oil it doesn’t actually pollute during usage. When the solar panels quit working effectively (about 30 years) they can be either fixed or recycled with small amounts of waste. Therefore, solar energy systems leave a small environmental footprint compared to oil.
Oil is a non-renewable fossil fuel energy source that is often found at sea. Giant oil rigs can pump as much as one quarter of a million barrels of hot oil a day. When the oil has cooled it needs to be transported by enormous oil tankers which can have accidents. While oil spills are uncommon, they still happen and the result is without a doubt catastrophic on marine life, birds, and the coastlines for many years. For example, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill damaged the environment with continued ripple affects to this day. Birds can sink or drowned due to their oily feathers sticking together and not keeping their bodies afloat. Fur seal pups drown if oil sticks to their flippers or to their bodies. Furthermore, the Australia Maritime safety authority says that oil can cause many illnesses depending on the type of oil spill. All these are sad effects of oil drilling, processing, and accidental spillage during transportation. Yet, the US still consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day. It is now obvious that the environmental impacts of oil are far greater than those of solar.

The process of converting sunlight into electricity produces no greenhouse gases; nonetheless, it has no where near the efficiency of oil. Solar conversion efficiency can range from 8% to the world record of 48.2% reached in 2007 by a University of Delaware team. Even the record conversion rate does not produce sufficient energy to totally replace oil on a large scale. However, solar technologies are rapidly changing and with an infusion of government or private funds conversion efficiencies would improve in a short time.
Oil is generally more attractive to investors because it has been a lucrative industry for many years. The oil industry has been continuously developed and improved making oil versatile and efficient in its various applications. For example, most cars and transportation devices are powered by gas which is a byproduct of oil. Plastic bags, lip balms, lotions, and many other products are also made from oil byproducts. Oil is also instrumental in powering large cities. For example, 8% of New York’s electricity is from burned oil, which is substantial considering that New York City is one of the biggest cities in the United States; furthermore, the Hawaiian islands are now heavily dependent on imported fuel. The tourist industry has grown to a level where 35 percent of all energy consumed is in the form of jet fuel, with much of the rest being used by automobiles and power plants. Oil still outshines solar as an energy source due to solar currently level of technology, limited installations, and lack of infrastructure.

The cost for solar panels being built into a home ranges from about $10,000 to $20,000 U.S. dollars for a complete installation. Although after being installed there is no monthly usage costs and expenses are limited to occasional maintenance. Also with grid-tied solar systems, excess electricity can be sold to the transmission grid generating income to the homeowner. There are many incentive programs including green building, local and private grant programs, incentives in production, and sales tax exemptions. All these incentive programs can help offset some of the initial cost of the system. Once the system has been paid for, users will essentially be receiving free energy for as long as the sun shines.

Oil cost is currently $45 dollars per barrel but just last summer the cost reached a high of $126 dollars per barrel. The cost of oil bore by the consumer fluctuates drastically and some of the costs are hidden within the prices of other consumer goods including food. People generally find it easier to regularly spend money at the gas station then restrain themselves and save the necessary money for the relatively large upfront expense of a solar system. Oil is running out and is more costly to harvest each year. Oil sources aren’t renewable so each time a pocket of oil goes dry riggers have to move to a different location and dig even deeper, all this takes time and money.

Solar is available and practical in almost all countries since the sun is the source and it is unlimited and free. Even in Northern places with new solar technologies it is plausible to use solar as an energy option. On extremely dark days when solar systems can’t generate enough power, electricity can be drawn from the grid network and used. Therefore, the power grid can be effectively used like a solar energy storage device. Solar is readily available to all as opposed to oil which is controlled by an oligopoly.According to futurist King Hubert, oil consumption is at its peak and from now on oil will be getting more rare and harder to find. Many recommend researching alternative power sources, including solar.
Oligopolies can and do collude to manipulate prices and availability which can lead others to the point of war. For example, the US, who is highly dependent on oil, has many conflicts related to oil in the Middle East and literally spends billions in the region every year. All this money could be going to the renewable energy movement helping the energy crises, creating thousands of jobs, and decreasing the impact on the earth.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the utilization of both solar and oil as energy sources. The U.S. and the world are at a pivotal point - difficult choices must be made. Oil usage is harming the planet and its inhabitants, while finite oil deposits threaten future generations with an energy crisis. On the other hand, solar energy is an infant industry in need of research and development and an infusion of capital. All these factors must be evaluated and considered. Should the U.S. continue to use oil like the country has done in the past or should the government invest in a new energy source(s) which may eventually allow its citizens to become energy independent and tread on the earth more softly?

The author's comments:
This is a magazine article I wrote in school.

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