Archive for the 'Solar Energy' Category

Interactive infographics from the IEA | World’s energy system through 2050

IEA World Energy 2012

The World’s Energy System in 2012

The International Energy Association’s publication Energy Technology Perspectives 2015, is accompanied by a set of interactive visualizations that utilizes the data and figures behind its publication on energy technologies.  I am an advocate for having students visualize the entire energy system – the diversity of energy sources used to provide electricity to homes and industry and to power our various modes of transportation.  I also find it useful to examine how the system is changing over time as our demand for energy grows in light of the need to limit society’s carbon dioxide emissions. These interactive infographics from the IEA illustrate how the world’s energy system will evolve through 2050.  There are three parts to this online tool: an energy flow visualization, an emissions reduction visualization and a transportation visualization. Here I am featuring the energy flow visualization where the  user can hover over a specific energy source, transformation or end user to study a particular energy flow.  The diagram below shows the global energy flow for coal in 2012 and for 2050 (projected); one can easily compare the two graphics to see that coal use will decrease while global energy demand will increase.  Have you considered asking your students to evaluate and explain energy flow diagrams?

IEA World Energy 2012 and 2050_coal

Global energy flow for coal in 2012 and for 2050 (projected).

The emissions reduction visualization tool allows the user to assess how individual countries or regions can reduce carbon dioxide emissions via deployment of technologies and energy efficiency measures under three different warming scenarios (2°C, 4°C and 6°C). The transport visualization tool enables the user to select an “indicator” such as annual road energy consumption for a specific country, region or the world to visualize the extent to which the selected indicator needs to change to limit Earth’s average global temperature to either 2°C, 4°C or 6°C.  According to the IEA website. “the 2°C Scenario is the main focus of ETP 2015. It lays out the pathway to deploy an energy system and emissions trajectory consistent with what recent climate science research indicates would give at least a 50% chance of limiting average global temperature increase to 2°C.”  You can read the Executive Summary of the ETP 2015 here.

And if you want to read more about energy flow diagrams, check out this post.


Duke Energy 2050 Vision | Online Challenge

I recently learned about this interactive online “Energy Challenge” by Duke Energy where users create a plan to meet the energy demand of  a carbon constrained world in the year 2050. Duke Energy aggregated data from across its entire U.S. service territory and created a visual representation of its service area and power generating facilities which sets the stage for the user who is tasked with making choices about how to meet a growing energy demand while working towards CO2 reduction goals.  Choices that can be made by the user include: building new power plants, including solar and wind farms, upgrading existing power plants to produce more energy, retrofitting existing plants to reduce emissions, closing inefficient power plants and implementing energy efficiency programs.


As users make decisions, such as retiring a set of aging coal plants or adding a wind farm, they get instant feedback regarding cost (in billions of dollars), impact on CO2 emissions (tons per year) and the extent to which their plan meets the predicted energy demand for the year 2050.  The energy demand meter displayed on the right side of the screen makes it easy to visually monitor the extent to which a decision helps to meet energy demand and the extent to which this demand is met through non-renewable energy sources, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.

Duke Energy intends for this tool to “demonstrate the trade-offs and cost implications of choosing an energy generation mix that will meet future energy demand while minimizing CO2 emissions and keeping costs as low as possible.” I could easily see small groups of students competing to see which group can come up with a strategy that reduces CO2 emissions, meets projected energy demand for 2050 and costs the least amount of money.

To learn more about the game, click here.

One Indiana science teacher created a worksheet to accompany this game that could be used with your students.

If you have your students play this game, please share your experience by leaving a comment!



Exploring 2015 electricity generation data for the United States

Earlier this summer the Washington Post published an online map (using data from the Energy Information Administration) to help users visualize the current state of electricity generation in the United States. In addition to showing electricity generation by energy source from January to May 2015, the location and capacity (in megawatts) of each power plant is also featured. Additional maps show the distribution of power plants utilizing a particular energy source (e.g., coal plants operating from January to May 2015).

I think lots of discussions could arise by studying maps such as these with students.  Prompt students to consider how the sources of electricity that are used by a state or region are influenced by access to those energy sources.  What do students notice about the distribution of coal plants? Natural gas plants?  How might the observed trends relate to energy pricing, policies, etc.? One intention of the graphics is to show users that “Local electric utilities take advantage of the power sources most accessible to them: coal mines, dammed rivers, new supplies of natural gas or nuclear plants to generate the bulk of the nation’s electricity.”

Another interactive tool available let’s the user examine and compare how each state uses a particular energy source.  For instance, with a single click the user can view the states that generate the most electricity from wind.


Announcing an Interactive Energy Game from the US EPA

The US EPA has just released an interactive board game developed by physical scientist Rebecca Dodder, PhD, in collaboration with classroom teachers and others at the EPA, and this is a game that teachers are going to love incorporating into their instruction!  The Generate! Game lets participants engage in friendly competition while conducting a  simulation that enables them to examine the costs and benefits of using varied fossil and renewable energy sources to power their electrical grid.

Each team is given a game board which represents their power grid.  Every team has same size grid and thus can generate the same total amount of energy, but teams do not have the same mix of energy sources. Each team assembles a portfolio of energy sources for their grid under constraints provided by the facilitator – which group can come up with the least expensive energy portfolio?  Which group can come up with a portfolio that generates the least amount carbon dioxide emissions? Which energy portfolio utilizes the least amount of water and would presumably be more resilient during a drought?  How does the addition of energy efficiency measures impact costs? emissions?Game-in-playI have seen this game played numerous times, both with high school students and teachers and it is always well received. In fact, most people want to keep playing the game as each round brings an improved understanding of the kinds of decisions that must be taken into account when choosing which energy sources will be used to provide electricity. This game is a very effective instructional tool that cultivates critical thinking about the energy sources used to generate electricity both now and in the future.

Materials for making your own Generate! game are now available along with a PowerPoint slide set for introducing the game to students and a teacher’s guide for both middle school and high school teachers. Once you conduct this game with students, you will find that students are more prepared to thoughtfully engage in a discussion about the future of electricity generation and to grapple “with the complexities of our energy challenges.”

Have fun!


Two Solar Energy Lessons from My NASA Data

I think it is great when students can interact with real data as this brings not only relevance to an activity but also enables them to practice the skills required to analyze and interpret data.

These two solar-energy related lessons from NASA utilize satellite data from the MY NASA DATA Live Access Server (LAS).  The LAS contains over 149 parameters in atmospheric and earth science from five NASA scientific projects and enables teachers to create their own data microsets that also take into account geographic location (latitude and longitude). While easy to use, I would get familiar with this tool first; a tutorial is available on the LAS home page.

Think GREEN – Utilizing Renewable Solar Energy
In this lesson, students analyze line plots that are generated using satellite data to determine the average monthly amount of solar energy received by their region and assess the impact of clouds on the amount of solar energy received.  Students practice constructing and interpreting graphs and evaluate the solar energy potential for their region.

Solar Cell Energy Availability From Around the Country
In this lesson, students analyze incoming solar radiation graphs for the country to determine the areas of the country that have the greatest solar energy potential. To conclude the activity, each student explores where in the US they would choose to live if solar energy was to power their home.


A nice companion activity for either lesson would be to have your students create sun charts for their region and/or the regions they are comparing.


The Growth of the Solar Industry in North Carolina

I asked my colleague Steve Wall, Policy Research Associate at the UNC Institute for the Environment, to reflect on the growth of solar in NC and to give you ideas of places where you can go to learn more.

North Carolina has long been recognized as a national leader in a number of economic sectors, from biotechnology to agricultural to tourism. The emergence of the solar industry in the state means that North Carolina can now stake a claim to being a national leader in renewable energy. Just last week Duke Energy announced that it will be investing $500 million in solar projects across the state in coming years.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association North Carolina was ranked third in the country for the amount of solar installed in 2013. As the recent announcement by Duke Energy illustrates, solar development appears to be on a path to continue this strong growth. Primarily the growth in the solar industry across the state has developed through the construction of large solar farms rather than conventional rooftop solar on homes and businesses.

The success of the solar industry in North Carolina leads to the question of how did the state best known for basketball and barbeque become a national player in solar development? There are many factors that go into answering that question. However, one critical factor assisting in the solar industry’s remarkable rise is the foundation of state policy.

When North Carolina lawmakers adopted a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) in 2007, it became the first state in the Southeast to have such a law. The REPS requires that the utility companies in North Carolina produce a certain amount of their electricity from renewable resources. The law also required that a certain percentage of the renewable generation come from solar—a provision deemed the solar set-aside. Teachers: Have your students learn more about the NC REPS and identify what other “renewable resources” can be utilized to meet its mandates. The Citizen’s Guide to the REPS from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association is a good place to start.

The increasing amount of solar development across North Carolina has not come without some controversy. In some instances, local governments, community groups, and individual landowners have expressed concerns about the impacts of solar farms. Some of the concerns include potential impact on property values, taking agricultural land out of production, and aesthetics. Faculty at the UNC School of Government released a report earlier this year to help guide local government leaders to ensure that the siting of solar farms is done in a responsible manner. Teachers: Have your students explore whether there are any solar farms (click here for a summary of Duke Energy Renewables’ commercial solar farms) in your region and whether there was any opposition to their construction. Internet research and local newspapers may be the best resources for this exercise.

The recent surge of solar development in North Carolina appears likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The long-term success of the industry remains reliant on sound policies as well as addressing issues raised by local communities where these facilities are sited. If state and local officials fail to recognize the economic value of these new industry and choose to back away from the current policies that have made the state a national leader, the Palmetto state has passed a new law that shows it is willing to take North Carolina’s place.

Teachers: For more information on solar and renewable energy policies in North Carolina and across the country the North Carolina Clean Technology Center is a great resource!

Energy, Water and Land: National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment “provides an in-depth look at climate change impacts on the U.S. It details the multitude of ways climate change is already affecting and will increasingly affect the lives of Americans.”  Chapter 10 of the report is devoted to exploring the connections between energy, water and land as understanding these connections “can improve our capacity to predict, prepare for, and mitigate climate change.”

The report is organized around three key messages:
1. Energy, water, and land systems interact in many ways. Climate change affects the individual sectors and their interactions; the combination of these factors affects climate change vulnerability as well as adaptation and mitigation options for different regions of the country.
2. The dependence of energy systems on land and water supplies will influence the development of these systems and options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as their climate change vulnerability.
3. Jointly considering risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities associated with energy, water, and land use is challenging, but can improve the identification and evaluation of options for reducing climate change impacts.

Each chapter of the report includes interactive graphics as well as figures and graphics that can be downloaded for use in the classroom.  Check out the interactive version of Figure 10.4 that shows the energy production by source, amount of water withdrawn by key sectors and land cover type for each region of the US along with projected climate change impacts. This figure provides an at-a-glance view of water, energy and land use that can be used by students as they consider how projected climate impacts might influence each of these sectors in their region.

The report also includes examples of energy, water and land connections by exploring the following technologies and the corresponding energy-water-land tradeoffs in more depth:

  • shale gas and hydraulic fracturing
  • solar power generation
  • biofuels
  • carbon capture and storage

So the next time you ask students to critically evaluate the various energy sources used by society, encourage them to also consider the role of water and land in the mining and acquisition of energy sources, the generation of electricity, and the manufacture and delivery of transportation fuels.



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