Solar Design Choices

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Solar Design Choices

Geography: Where will solar energy systems be built?

There are many aspects of this choice, including the urban/rural question posed by the stories and essays in this collection. But geography is also about whether we build in deserts or on farms, everywhere or just in sunny places, on public lands or private lands, on rooftops, in parking lots, in parks, or as giant shade structures over entire cities, and much, much more.

Scale: How big will the solar systems of the future be?

Many people argue that the only financially sensible approach is to build the cheapest solar plants, which at the moment are also the largest: utility-scale projects of 10+ MW. But distributed, rooftop-scale systems of a few kW remain popular with households all over the globe and have many advantages, despite sometimes being more expensive. Rooftop systems deliver energy at the point of consumption, reducing losses from transmitting energy long distances and the costs of building and maintaining transmission lines. And many others advocate for the benefits of community-scale solar projects, in the 1-5 MW scale, that power individual neighborhoods or small communities.

Ownership: Who will own the solar energy of the future and benefit financially?

Ownership of and financial benefit from existing energy systems tends to be highly concentrated. Solar systems are already demonstrating the viability of very different ownership models that distribute financial risks and rewards in new and innovative ways. Key questions include scale and distribution of energy ownership (potentially independent of, or intertwined with, system size and geography) and questions of public vs. private ownership.

Governance: Who will make the rules for solar energy futures?

Existing energy systems operate under a huge variety of governance models, from government-owned-and-operated models to regulated monopolies to electricity markets to internationally traded commodities. Solar could arguably easily fit into all of these options and perhaps some new ones.

Aesthetics: Can solar energy futures be made beautiful?

It’s a taken-for-granted assumption of modern energy landscapes that energy infrastructures are industrial monstrosities. Where they aren’t relegated to out-of-the-way locations, they are visual blights. Folks like the Land Art Generator Initiative, on the other hand, are exploring whether the future of solar energy is in tourism. Can energy also be art?

Supply Chains: Where do all those solar panels come from?

The design of the solar energy manufacturing industry, with its factories and transportation systems, is a critical question with regard to the future of the solar energy workforce (e.g., where will the jobs be, and what kind of jobs will they be), and how its financial benefits and environmental risks are distributed. Given the scale of construction required, it’s also important to consider what materials get used in manufacturing solar panels and where and how those materials are dug up and transformed into the building blocks of PV systems.

Waste: Where do all the dead solar panels go?

We currently expect that solar panels will last 25 years before needing to be replaced. Longer lifecycles may be possible in the future, but a century from now, we’ll have had to figure out how to dispose of four generations of solar panels, in very high volumes. How we set up the plans to do that will have major implications for society and the environment.

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