National physicist, UI professors tout solar energy growth


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The amount of sunlight beaming down on Earth in one hour is enough to provide the world’s energy consumption for an entire year.

And that power from the Sun will continue to be an important part in providing global energy.
Solar energy was the focus of this year’s Kurtz Lecture at the University of Iowa on Thursday evening, and UI officials emphasized how vital solar energy will be in the future.

Sarah Kurtz (no relation), a physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory who is a leader in solar, or photovoltaic, systems, spoke at the annual event.

“The [photovoltaic] industry has been growing very rapidly,” she said. “The general scene in fossil fuels is increasing dramatically.”

To put this increase in perspective, the amount of solar power created in the world has tripled since 2009. There were 34,788 megawatts of solar energy produced in 2011 and 23,898 megawatts in 2010. In 2009, there was only 11,315 megawatts of solar energy produced.

“Solar energy is important everywhere,” said H.S. Udaykumar, a UI professor of mechanical and industrial engineering.

Udaykumar said he thinks solar energy could have a place here in Iowa, but state officials have leaned more toward wind alternatives when generating renewable energy.

“Of course in Iowa, solar has to compete with wind,” he said. “The issue is whether it will be individual installation on rooftops — or in large fields.”

The UI has made increasing efforts in Iowa City to use solar energy to help curb the dependency of fossil fuels. Facilities Management has electric vehicles and a solar e-car charging station — located near the University Services Building and the Madison Street Services Building. The station provides charging spaces for 20 electric vehicles for Facilities Management and other UI departments.

These UI efforts are an important step toward implementing solar energy as a major source of energy.

“If we want to increase manufacturing in the U.S., the No. 1 thing we can do is increase the market,” Kurtz said. “The coal-fired plants are being shut down. Natural gas is now going up dramatically. The wind and solar [energies] are actually growing quite rapidly.”

Kurtz said the photovoltaic industry has reached a milestone. 

“Historically, we’ve thought of [photovoltaic] as a tiny fraction,” she said. “We’re actually now getting to a growth point.”

Scott Spak, a UI assistant professor of urban and regional planning and civil and environmental engineering, said the world energy industry is now jumping over the hurdles with photovoltaic.

“Up until now, it has been primarily a question of technology and land use and economics,” he said.

However, he admitted there were still challenges ahead of the industry.

“There are technological challenges,” Spak said. “There are financing challenges — how will we get the world to pay for this?”

Kurtz said the costs of solar panels include semiconductor material, area-related costs — including glass, installation and wiring — and power-related costs. She said she thinks the costs — which can reach a few hundred dollars — will decrease over time.

“We do expect to see it drop more slowly as time goes by,” she said. “New technology can see decreased prices — this is what we’re seeing with [photovoltaic].”

Kurtz said the world has plenty of energy to collect, but it’s difficult to harvest all of it.

“The good news is we don’t have to worry about running out of energy,” she said. “The challenge is harvesting it and sending it to people who want to use it.”

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