Humans have been trying to harness the sun’s energy for most of history, but it was the invention of the first photovoltaic cell by French physicist Edmond Becquerel in 1839 that finally made solar energy possible on a grander scale.
Since then, solar has come a long way.
Not only has the cost of producing solar panels dropped like a rock, manufacturers are now routinely pumping out new innovations such as flexible solar cells, ultra-thin cells, and transparent photovoltaic windows. These could be game-changers for the industry, adding to the already incredible 39% annual growth occurring in U.S. solar capacity between 2013-2017.
Animated Infographic: How Solar Panels Work
Today’s infographic comes from SaveOnEnergy, and it covers the science behind how solar panels work.
While it is fairly technical, the handy animations will help you understand the principles behind photovoltaic cells in no time at all.
In terms of our understanding of how different energy sources work, perhaps the photovoltaic effect is one of the least intuitive processes for the average person to comprehend. After all, something like capturing wind energy is much more straightforward. The wind spins a turbine, and that turbine generates electricity.
But solar panels have no moving parts. So how do these thin, glassy arrays turn sunlight into energy we can use?
Each solar cell is made of multiple layers. The top semiconductor is a negative layer, which means the material contains extra electrons. The sun’s energy “shakes” these electrons loose, and these electrons become naturally attracted to the bottom semiconductor layer, which is positively charged. The design of the cell forces electrons to move in a specific direction, creating an electrical current.
Why are solar panels getting so much cheaper? Technological advances have made cells more efficient in using the photovoltaic effect to create electricity, and manufacturing processes are improving as well.
Interestingly, in the future, it is expected that cost reductions will be tilted more to “soft” costs such as those related to the financing, permitting, and selling of solar projects.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams
Hydroelectric dams generate 40% of the world’s renewable energy, the largest of any type. View this infographic to learn more.
Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams
Did you know that hydroelectricity is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy? According to recent figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it represents 40% of total capacity, ahead of solar (28%) and wind (27%).
This type of energy is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which are essentially large dams that use the water flow to spin a turbine. They can also serve secondary functions such as flow monitoring and flood control.
To help you learn more about hydropower, we’ve visualized the five largest hydroelectric dams in the world, ranked by their maximum output.
Overview of the Data
The following table lists key information about the five dams shown in this graphic, as of 2021. Installed capacity is the maximum amount of power that a plant can generate under full load.
|🇨🇳 China||Three Gorges Dam||Yangtze River||22.5||181 x 2,335|
|🇧🇷 Brazil / 🇵🇾 Paraguay||Itaipu Dam||Parana River||14.0||196 x 7,919|
|🇨🇳 China||Xiluodu Dam||Jinsha River||13.9||286 x 700|
|🇧🇷 Brazil||Belo Monte Dam||Xingu River||11.2||90 X 3,545|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||Guri Dam||Caroni River||10.2||162 x 7,426|
At the top of the list is China’s Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2003. It has an installed capacity of 22.5 gigawatts (GW), which is close to double the second-place Itaipu Dam.
In terms of annual output, the Itaipu Dam actually produces about the same amount of electricity. This is because the Parana River has a low seasonal variance, meaning the flow rate changes very little throughout the year. On the other hand, the Yangtze River has a significant drop in flow for several months of the year.
For a point of comparison, here is the installed capacity of the world’s three largest solar power plants, also as of 2021:
- Bhadla Solar Park, India: 2.2 GW
- Hainan Solar Park, China: 2.2 GW
- Pavagada Solar Park, India: 2.1 GW
Compared to our largest dams, solar plants have a much lower installed capacity. However, in terms of cost (cents per kilowatt-hour), the two are actually quite even.
Closer Look: Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel, costing over $32 billion to construct. To wrap your head around its massive scale, consider the following facts:
- The Three Gorges Reservoir (which feeds the dam) contains 39 trillion kg of water (42 billion tons)
- In terms of area, the reservoir spans 400 square miles (1,045 square km)
- The mass of this reservoir is large enough to slow the Earth’s rotation by 0.06 microseconds
Of course, any man-made structure this large is bound to have a profound impact on the environment. In a 2010 study, it was found that the dam has triggered over 3,000 earthquakes and landslides since 2003.
The Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams
While hydropower can be cost-effective, there are some legitimate concerns about its long-term sustainability.
For starters, hydroelectric dams require large upstream reservoirs to ensure a consistent supply of water. Flooding new areas of land can disrupt wildlife, degrade water quality, and even cause natural disasters like earthquakes.
Dams can also disrupt the natural flow of rivers. Other studies have found that millions of people living downstream from large dams suffer from food insecurity and flooding.
Whereas the benefits have generally been delivered to urban centers or industrial-scale agricultural developments, river-dependent populations located downstream of dams have experienced a difficult upheaval of their livelihoods.
– Richter, B.D. et al. (2010)
Perhaps the greatest risk to hydropower is climate change itself. For example, due to the rising frequency of droughts, hydroelectric dams in places like California are becoming significantly less economical.
What are the Benefits of Fusion Energy?
One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies.
What are The Benefits of Fusion Energy?
As the world moves towards net-zero emissions, sustainable and affordable power sources are urgently needed by humanity.
One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies like Chevron and Google. In fact, Bloomberg Intelligence has estimated that the fusion market may eventually be valued at $40 trillion.
In this infographic sponsored by General Fusion, we discuss the benefits of fusion as a clean energy source.
The Ultimate Source of Energy
Fusion powers the sun and the stars, where the immense force of gravity compresses and heats hydrogen plasma, fusing it into helium and releasing enormous amounts of energy. Here on Earth, scientists use isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—to power fusion plants.
Fusion energy offers a wide range of benefits, such as:
1. Ample resources:
Both atoms necessary for nuclear fusion are abundant on Earth: deuterium is found in seawater, while tritium can be produced from lithium.
Energy-dense generation like fusion minimizes land use needs and can replace aging infrastructure like old power plants.
There are no CO₂ or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process.
With limited expected regulatory burden or export controls, fusion scales effectively with a small land footprint that can be located close to cities.
5. Safety advantage
Unlike atomic fission, fusion does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. Its radiation profile is similar to widely used medical and industrial applications like cyclotrons for cancer treatment.
Fusion energy is on-demand and independent from the weather, making it an excellent option in a dependable portfolio for power generation.
Commercializing Fusion Energy
More than 130 countries have now set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050. Meanwhile, global energy demand is expected to increase by 47% in the next 30 years.
While renewables like wind and solar are intermittent and need a baseload source of clean energy to supplement them, fusion, when commercially implemented, could deliver clean, abundant, reliable, and cost-competitive energy.
General Fusion seeks to transform the world’s energy supply with the most practical path to commercial fusion energy. Click here to learn more.
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