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.
Mapped: Every Power Plant in the United States
What sources of power are closest to you, and how has this mix changed over the last 10 years? See every power plant in the U.S. on this handy map.
This Map Shows Every Power Plant in the United States
Every year, the United States generates 4,000 million MWh of electricity from utility-scale sources.
While the majority comes from fossil fuels like natural gas (32.1%) and coal (29.9%), there are also many other minor sources that feed into the grid, ranging from biomass to geothermal.
Do you know where your electricity comes from?
The Big Picture View
Today’s series of maps come from Weber State University, and they use information from the EPA’s eGRID databases to show every utility-scale power plant in the country.
Use the white slider in the middle below to see how things have changed between 2007 and 2016:
The biggest difference between the two maps is the reduced role of coal, which is no longer the most dominant energy source in the country. You can also see many smaller-scale wind and solar dots appear throughout the appropriate regions.
Here’s a similar look at how the energy mix has changed in the United States over the last 70 years:
Up until the 21st century, power almost always came from fossil fuels, nuclear, or hydro sources. More recently, we can see different streams of renewables making a dent in the mix.
Maps by Source
Now let’s look at how these maps look by individual sources to see regional differences more clearly.
Here’s the map only showing fossil fuels.
The two most prominent sources are coal (black) and natural gas (orange), and they combine to make up about 60% of total annual net generation.
Now here’s just nuclear on the map:
Nuclear is pretty uncommon on the western half of the country, but on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, it is a major power source. All in all, it makes up about 20% of the annual net generation mix.
Finally, a look at renewable energy:
Hydro (dark blue), wind (light blue), solar (yellow), biomass (brown), and geothermal (green) all appear here.
Aside from a few massive hydro installations – such as the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State (19 million MWh per year) – most renewable installations are on a smaller scale.
Generally speaking, renewable sources are also more dependent on geography. You can’t put geothermal in an area where there is no thermal energy in the ground, or wind where there is mostly calm weather. For this reason, the dispersion of green sources around the country is also quite interesting to look at.
See all of the above, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, in an interactive map here.
The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns
This unique chart shows the performance of individual commodities over the last decade – see commodity returns in 2018, and how they compared to previous years.
Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2019 Edition)
Commodities are an interesting asset class to watch.
In certain years, all commodities will move in price together in an obvious and correlated fashion. This is a representation of the cyclical characteristics of commodity markets, in which macroeconomic factors align to create a tide that lifts or sinks all boats.
At the same time, however, each individual commodity is incredibly unique with its own specific set of supply and demand circumstances. In the years when these supply or demand crunches materialize, a certain commodity can surge or crash in price, separating itself from the rest of the pack.
A Decade of Commodity Returns
Today’s visualization comes to us from our friends at U.S. Global Investors, and it tracks commodity returns over the last decade.
More specifically, it takes a closer look at individual commodities (i.e. corn, gold, oil, zinc) to show how performance can vary over time. With a quick examination of the graphic, you can see years where commodities moved together – and some years where individual commodities stole the show unexpectedly.
Palladium: A Perennial Winner
The best performing commodity in 2018 was palladium, which found itself up 18.6% – just enough to edge out corn, which jumped up 17.9% in price last year.
Interestingly, palladium has also been the best performing commodity over the 10-year period as well:
Palladium has finished in first place in four of the last 10 years, including in 2017 and 2018 – it’s also impressive to note that palladium has only had negative returns twice in the last decade (2011, 2015).
A Crude Awakening
The worst performing commodity in 2018 was crude oil, which fell -24.8% in price.
Like palladium, this wasn’t a unique occurrence: crude has actually been the worst performing commodity investment over the last decade:
As you can see, crude oil has been the worst (or second worst) commodity in three of the last five years.
Further, as our chart on how all assets performed in 2018 shows, crude oil was outperformed by every other asset class, and the energy sector had the poorest performance out of all S&P 500 sectors last year.
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