Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash
When you examine the solar industry’s trajectory over the last decade, the growth is undeniable. According to a recent report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), solar energy generation has grown annually by 59 percent on average during the last 10 years; generating enough electricity to power 10.1 million homes. With 1.6 million solar installations currently installed in the U.S. and 4 million expected to be installed by 2023, the nation stands to increase solar energy generation from 53 to 100 gigawatts (GW) of electric generating capacity within the next four years.
We’re seeing installations of solar energy usage continue to grow in the residential sectors, while seeing exponential growth in commercial markets, as some of the nation’s leading corporations integrate the clean energy technology into their business models.
For example, Target added 40 megawatts (MW) of solar in 2017 alone, bringing the company’s total to 203 MW of installed solar capacity. According to SEIA’s Solar Means Business report, the top 10 corporate solar users in the U.S. could power over 400,000 homes with 7,400 installations nationwide. Additionally, just this April, both Google and Apple achieved their goal of 100 percent renewable energy.
We’re also seeing solar integrated into utilities and institutions that shape the way our society functions, including solar powered traffic signals, street lights and water heaters, as well as hospitals, airports and schools. These institutions encompass expansive roofs and land mass; providing the perfect solar generation environments at a huge energy cost savings.
Increased solar integration can be greatly attributed to favorable economic policies, such as state renewable energy mandates and the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which offers a tax credit for solar installations through 2021 but gradually steps down in the credit value.
The solar industry also has a huge impact on American jobs. According to the Department of Energy’s 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, the solar industry employs more than 373,000 workers, double that of those employed by coal. These workers are employed at more than 9,000 companies, located in every U.S. state, according to SEIA.
And while the sun may be the star of the show, behind the scenes of this green energy revolution remains one age-old, time-tested metal, copper.
Copper has long been known for its use in traditional electrical generation. Copper wire and cable power homes and buildings, fuel the electrical grid, and are used in electrical transformers and motors. What many people don’t know is that copper plays an even greater role in renewable energy technology.
Renewables, which have copper wiring, tubing, and cable, offer a potential for copper usage up to five time greater than traditional, fossil fuel electrical generation. Copper usage in renewable energy technology varies between each system, but on average, it is up to five times greater than in traditional electrical generation. In addition, copper is also used to connect these systems to energy storage installations and to the larger electrical grid.
Renewable systems and their surrounding infrastructure encompass approximately 5.5 tons copper per megawatt (MW) and with every GW increase of renewable energy generating capacity, significant amounts of copper will be required to meet demand.
When it comes to solar PV systems specifically, copper is vital for the collection, storage and distribution of solar energy. Copper’s natural properties of high conductivity and durability increase the efficiency and performance of photovoltaic cells and modules. Copper’s superior electrical and thermal conductivities are vital in the collection, storage and distribution infrastructure of solar energy. In some cases, it’s even used to drive motors that tilt the solar panels toward the sun.
A well-designed solar PV plant might use approximately 9,000 pounds of copper per megawatt of peak capacity – a figure that does not appear to vary significantly over installations ranging from large rooftop units to multi-megawatt utility farms. Depending on the design, a system can contain anywhere from 4 to 15 million pounds of copper.
Copper will continue to drive the green energy revolution and with solar energy comprising 30 percent of the energy market in 2017, this age-old metal is on the forefront of powering a green-energy world!