How Solar Energy Works

Each and every day enough more than enough sunlight passes through our atmosphere to power our entire planet for a year. Considering that by 2040 it is estimated that 50% of our energy will be coming from renewable sources, that solar panels have essentially no negative impact on our environment, that they are relatively easy to create, and that they are becoming more and more cost effective – it is obvious solar energy is going to play a major role in our future.

Cost is clearly the largest downfall when considering solar cells are a viable source for renewable energy. Compared to other leading energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas it is significantly more expensive – mainly the original installation which costs upwards of 30,000$ for the typical family. The main reasons for these higher prices are the lack of competition in the market and lobbying against solar energy by fossil fuel companies. With that being said, solar panel prices are continuously dropping as demand increases, while becoming more and more efficient at the same time. Government rebates as well as tax credits can also give you around 30% back on your investment right away. Not only this, but you can actually make money off residual energy being sent back into the power grid. In the long run it is an extremely good investment. For example let’s say your monthly energy bill is 250$, that means that in the next year you will spend 3,000$, in the next 10 years you will spend approximately 41,449.34, and 30 years 283,382.36 (taking inflation into account). Although solar energy most likely wouldn’t be able to cover all of your monthly energy needs, it could reduce your bill by 80%, saving you over 2,400$ a year. Considering a 30,000$ system will pay itself back in 10 to 15 years, and the average lifespan of a solar panel system is 25 years you will be getting the majority of your energy for free for 15 years, a time period when energy prices will be at an all-time high.

Solar energy has essentially zero negative impact on the environment in comparison to traditional fossil fuel energy sources. The only potential dangers that it poses to the environment are leftover materials used in the creation of the solar panels such as silicon tetrachloride which if not disposed of properly could pose a risk to the environment. Solar panels also require a fairly large amount of energy to make, which pollutes the air, creates heavy metal emissions, and also releases greenhouse gasses.

The way solar energy production works is actually quite simple. Essentially photons released from the sun come in contact with a semiconductor, the semiconductor absorbs these photons, and finally energy from the photons knocks electrons inside the semiconductor free generating an electric current, although there is a little more to it than just that.

In order to get electrons flowing and creating electricity, an imbalance in charge must be created. This is done by “doping” a semiconductor, such as silicon in this case, with an element such as phosphorus. Phosphorus has five valence electrons, so when you mix it with silicon the result is 1 electron which is easy to move. When this electron is removed, you get a negative charge, also called N-Type silicon. The next step is to dope a separate sheet of silicon, except this time with boron. In this case the opposite happens, a positive charge is created in the silicon – also known as P-Type silicon. This P-Type silicon is looking to gain an electron. When you put the two together a PN Junction is formed. Electrons rush over from the N-Type silicon into the P-Type silicon filling in any available holes, but there aren’t enough. Eventually, equilibrium is reached and an electric field is formed in the middle. These are simply examples of materials which can be used; it can also be done with many others.

Now, once light hits the solar cell it dislodges electrons that are close to the electric field in the middle and sends them off to the other side creating further imbalance in charges. When an external current path is added, electrons are able to make their way back over to the other side and fill in the holes once more – while at the same time doing work. The result is very simple; the electrons provide a current while the electric field in the middle provides voltage. These two combined create power.

Although as of now commercially available solar panels only have an efficiency rate of around 20%, year by year scientists have been able to increase this number which brings great hope for the future. Even though solar panels may not be the best option today, they most certainly will be down the road.

Problems and solutions to hydraulic fracturing

Basically, the pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing cannot be resolved in a cost effective manner. The fact that nearly all aspects of it are fairly significant pollutants means the whole hydraulic fracturing process would need to be completely reformed.  The first and most likely the most significant pollutant is the fracking fluid used to fracture the shale deep down in the ground. This is composed of a variety of different chemicals and compounds, many of which are extremely dangerous for our environment such as hydrochloric acid. On certain occasions, this fluid may spill out of the fracking well or simply leak into the nearby environment killing all in its path. In order to resolve this issue to minimize pollution the hydraulic fracturing companies could create barriers to prevent the fluid from dissipating into the environment. Once the fluids are of no more use, instead of letting them settle in a pond companies could treat them in an environmentally friendly manner onsite reducing carbon emissions which brings me onto my next point; the amount of gas the trucks use to transport water to the fracking sites is tremendous. To fracture one well it will take approximately 1112 truckloads of water, sand, fracturing fluids, equipment and other necessary products and tools. (*Truck Traffic) This results in an enormous amount of carbon emissions and smog in the fracturing regions. There really is no way this can be resolved in this current period of time. Potentially in the future if we have less polluting ways of transporting materials then this pollutant factor of fracking could be resolved, but yet again the fact that a well can require up to 15million litres of water to frack is a waste of a precious resource in itself. Potentially is they find a less resource demanding way to extract the natural gas from the shale, by maybe using a different method to create the fractures this would reduce the pollution on that part. The third and also quite a major pollutant is the natural gas that seeps out of the shale and up through the earth. When a fracture takes place cracks are created in the shale letting out the natural gas. Although the majority goes through the tunnel created and is captured at the surface, some of it may escape up to the surface. This can contaminate wells, rivers and essentially just destroy the environment as well as pollute the air. This can easily be avoided if the team doing the fracture takes extra precautions to not over fracture the well and has the proper fracturing fluid.

Government regulations of Hydraulic Fracturing

The process of Hydraulic Fracturing began in the United States, although it is moving its way to Canada due to the vast amount of shale that can be exploited. At the current time it’s mainly been practiced on the east coast.  There really aren’t very many regulations on the process of hydraulic fracturing seeing as it’s a fairly new technology, and most people don’t know if it’s bad or good and any regulations that have been put into effect vary from province to province. The Premier of Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter, stated that he wanted to wait and see what happens in other places before he made any regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing. Quebec has made the decision to temporarily suspend hydraulic fracturing until more information on the process and its risks become available, and there are currently no hydraulic fracturing operations taking place in Nova Scotia at the present time.  The New Brunswick government is also reviewing the practice of hydraulic fracturing after there was an incident of well water contamination and are contemplating the implementation of new regulations regarding the matter. The Canadian government is trying to decide on which regulations to impose to protect the environment while not limiting the potential that the industry has. (*Too soon for fracking regulation: Premier) Even if no main regulations have been imposed on hydraulic fracturing, all cases of natural gas production are mandated to separate and protect drinking water and or ground water from the natural gas operations.. (*Shale Gas) In 2004 in the United States, the EPA published a report stating that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat” to drinking water. After this report they declined all further studies related to the issue. Although the regulations vary from location to location, companies are generally forced to disclose all chemicals used in the fracturing process, as well as disclose the concentrations of the chemicals used once the fracture has been completed. (*EPA Findings on Hydraulic Fracturing Deemed Unsupportable)

Is this regulation sufficient?

In my personal opinion the process of hydraulic fracturing needs to be heavily regulated in order to prevent the destruction of our environment. After watching gaslands I saw that many people inhabiting the regions surrounding “fracking” operations were being fairly seriously harmed, not only due to natural gas escaping from the ground into the air but also from hydraulic fracturing fluid spills. Without proper regulation hydraulic fracturing will contaminate our water sources and kill our environment. The concentration of natural gas entering people’s wells was so high that in some cases people could actually light their water on fire. I believe that the EPA should further investigate the process of hydraulic fracturing and the harmful effects that it can have on the regions surrounding the operations.

How is hydraulic fracturing harmfull?

29 chemicals used (and where used in large quantities) by the hydraulic fracturing companies where listed as either known possible human carcinogens, where regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act due to the risks they posed to our health, or where listed as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Methanol is a colorless liquid that also contains a pungent smell. The use of methanol carries along many different dangers and risks due to its explosiveness of the chemical and also the fact that it’s extremely toxic. The ingestion or even just the absorption of methanol through skin in small amounts (as little as one ounce) can cause irreversible injuries to your nervous system, blindness, or even in some cases death. (*MSDS Number 2016)

Under the clean air act, Ethylene Glycol is considered a hazardous air pollutant. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Report) It is odourless, colorless, and has a sweet taste to it. Its sweet taste makes it even more dangerous, due to the fact that people are more likely to consume it in large, lethal, quantities. (*Ethylene glycol) If ingested it is considered to be hazardous, and is slightly hazardous if it comes in contact with your skin, eyes, or if inhaled. If someone is exposed too often to large quantities of it they will most likely die. (*Material Safety Data Sheet Ethylene glycol MSDS)

Diesel, the third most commonly used ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing fluid is classified as being a known human carcinogen, is regulated under the Safe Water Drinking Act due to the risks that it poses to health, and is also considered to be a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Report) It’s MSDS information states that it is harmful for the environment, that it may have long term effects on aquatic life, that it may cause damage to lungs if swallowed, it may cause severe skin irritation and is extremely flammable. (*Diesel MSDS)

Industrial process of hydraulic fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing or also commonly known as fracking is currently the most popular and cost effective way of extracting natural gas from the earth. Although it’s mainly being done in the United States, companies in Canada are becoming more and more interested in it. The whole process starts off with a well being dug. Depending on the area, this well can be up to 10000 feet deep and then continues on horizontally. Once the well has been dug, hundreds of tanker trucks deliver water to the fracking site. Once there, a “pumper truck” mixes sand and other chemicals into the water, all essential for the fracture to work efficiently. This mixture is then pumped at an extremely high pressure down the well, causing the shale to crack. Debris and other things that get in the way are dissolved by the chemicals and the fractures are held open by the sand particles, this allows for the natural gas to flow up and out of the well. Once the gas exits the well, it is contained and then sent down pipes. This transports it to the market where it is sold. The water recovered from the process is stored in open pits where it sits for a while, and then it is transported by tanker trucks to a treatment plant. (*Hydraulic Fracturing: What is hydraulic fracturing?)

Why are we creating Hydraulic Fracturing pollution

The process of hydraulic fracturing has one goal, to extract as much natural gas from the shale as possible. We use natural gas for a variety of different things, including the heating for your home and water, cooking, transportation, energy generation and so much more. (*Use of Natural Gas) The majority of people use natural gas every day of their lives in one way or another. Seeing as hydraulic fracturing is currently the most cost effective way of extracting natural gas from the earth, many companies see this as a fairly easy way to get rich. At the present time, the only way to cost effectively extract natural gas from the shale requires the use of toxic chemicals, which on certain occasions may spill out into the environment.

Hydraulic Fracturing Project Bibliography

“Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids – Composition and Additives.” Geology.com – Earth Science News, Maps, Dictionary, Articles, Jobs. 23 May 2011. <http://geology.com/energy/hydraulic-fracturing-fluids/>.

“Hydraulic Fracturing Report.” Committee on Energy and Commerce Democrats. 18 Apr. 2011. 23 May 2011. <http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Hydraulic%20Fracturing%20Report%204.18.11.pdf>.

“MSDS Number 2016.” WORLD NATURAL HEALTH ORGANIZATION. 01 Apr. 2001. 23 May 2011. <http://www.wnho.net/methanol_msds.pdf>.

“Hydraulic Fracturing Fact Sheet.” WORC. July 2009. 23 May 2011. <http://www.worc.org/userfiles/file/HyrdraulicFractuiring.pdf>.

“Use of Natural Gas.” by Design. 23 May 2011. <http://www.bydesign.com/fossilfuels/links/html/natural_gas/gas_use.html>.

“Too soon for fracking regulation: Premier.” CBC News. 17 Mar. 2011. 23 May 2011. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2011/03/17/ns-fracking-premier.html>.

“Shale Gas.” Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. 23 May 2011. <http://www.capp.ca/canadaIndustry/naturalGas/ShaleGas/Pages/default.aspx#yVMkOrG6xr3X>.

“EPA Findings on Hydraulic Fracturing Deemed Unsupportable.” Union of Concerned Scientists. 23 May 2011. <http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/oil-extraction.html>.

“Truck Traffic.” Argyle Bartonville Communitites Alliance. 23 May 2011. <http://abcalliance.org/?page_id=553>.

“Methanol.”  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 23 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol/>.

“Ethylene glycol.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 13 Mar. 2011. 23 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethylene_glycol/>.

“Hydraulic Fracturing: What is hydraulic fracturing?” ProPublica. 23 May 2011. <http://www.propublica.org/special/hydraulic-fracturing-national>.

“Material Safety Data Sheet Ethylene glycol MSDS.” Science Lab. 23 May 2011. <http://www.sciencelab.com/xMSDS-Ethylene_glycol-9927167>.

“Diesel MSDS.” Laboratory Chemicals, Abbey Chemicals. 23 May 2011. <http://www.abbey-chemicals.co.uk/MSDS/Diesel-MSDS.pdf>.

“Diesel.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 23 May 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel>.

“Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids.” US Environmental Protection Agency. 23 May 2011. <http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/uic/pdfs/cbmstudy_attach_uic_ch04_hyd_frac_fluids.pdf>.

Chemical Nature of Hydraulic Fracturing

The process of Hydraulic Fracturing is currently polluting our environment in a multitude of different ways. The first and possible the most polluting aspect of hydraulic fracturing is the fracturing fluid itself. This fluid is made up primarily of water and sand, but also contains a variety of different chemicals each with its own unique function to help the process along. The main use of these chemicals is to reduce friction during the fracture. Chemicals are also added in order to prevent the growth of microorganisms in the fractures, prevent the corrosion of the metal pipes and a variety of different acids that serve a variety of different functions. Nearly all of these fluids contain sand, normally silica sand, which gets placed into the fractures.  No hydraulic fracturing well is the same, and for that reason the same volume of additives is rarely the same. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids – Composition and Additives) Using over 750 different chemicals making up more than 2500 different products, each company has their own secret recipe. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Report)

Methanol (CH3OH) is the most widely used chemical in the hydraulic fracturing process, serving to dissolve rocks and open up pores in the shale. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Fact Sheet) It is considered an organic compound and an alcohol. It is completely water soluble and when released into the atmosphere will oxidize forming water and carbon dioxide. Ironically methanol is generally created from nature gas. This is done by having the methane in the natural gas undergoes a reaction called steam-methane reforming which is an endothermic reaction. This is where the methane reacts with steam, then reacts with a catalyst creating methanol and water vapour. (*Methanol)

Ethylene glycol (C2H6O2) is the second most used chemical in the hydraulic fracturing process and is used as a precursor to polymers. Ethylene is miscible with water in any amount. Ethylene glycol is produced by reacting ethylene with water, which produces ethylene glycol. The most common use for this chemical is in cars, as it’s a main component of anti-freeze although it is also commonly used as precursor to polymers. (*Ethylene glycol)

Adding diesel fuel (C12H23) to the fracturing fluid increases its viscosity, and in return improves its ability to transport the proppant. It is composed of hydrocarbons, 75% of which are saturated and the other 25% are aromatic. (*Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids) It’s generally produced from petroleum, but can also come from a variety of other sources. Diesel has essentially zero solubility in water. (*Diesel)