Faculty & staff share details of Elon's solar energy

Representatives from across campus spoke Sept. 22, 2015, about the physical, economic and educational benefits of solar power, as well as Elon’s recent efforts to harvest solar energy.

By Sarah Collins ‘18

The amount of solar energy the Earth receives in a single month dwarfs the world’s remaining natural gas, coal and oil reserves combined. Yet as of this year, solar power accounts for only 1 percent of the world’s total energy consumption.

A Sept. 22 evening forum in Whitley Auditorium allowed faculty and a top university administrator to explain the opportunities and challenges associated with building a solar-dependent society and the benefits of solar energy.

Associate Professor Dave Gammon moderated an event that featured insights from Associate Professor Scott Wolter in Elon’s engineering program, Assistant Professor Vitaliy Strohush from the Department of Economics, and Gerald Whittington, Elon’s senior vice president for Business, Finance and Technology.

Elon has served as a model for other institutions planning to make the solar transition. Its most recent green addition, thousands of solar panels at Loy Farm, will generate enough electricity each year to power about 415 homes, Whittington said.

“We think it’s only appropriate that the 9,900 panels be called a solar farm, because they’re enabling us to harvest a significant amount of energy,” he said.

Elon has added more than 100 solar panels to campus buildings in the last decade. Panels are now mounted on Lindner Hall and on the Colonnades Dining Hall. Solar-powered vehicles and crosswalk blinkers also contribute to Elon’s solar consumption. These additions were meant to help educate Elon students about the benefits of solar power, Whittington said.

Solar energy has no shortage of benefits. It’s clean and indefinitely renewable, making solar the most viable option for the future of energy consumption.

“A high standard of living depends on reliable sources of energy,” Gammon said. “Solar is the most reliable source we have.”

Despite its payoffs, integrating solar energy presents several hurdles, the experts said. The startup costs of installing and maintaining solar panels limit their accessibility for lower income groups. Many panels also lack adequate battery storage for the excess energy they produce from the sun, making them less effective during inclement weather or overnight hours.

Government subsidies for solar power present a controversy as well. North Carolina will end subsidies for solar energy producers at the end of this year. The change will cause investors to look to other states that will provide such financial incentives, Strohush said.

“Even though North Carolina is a leader in solar energy for this country, we still need investors willing to support solar projects,” he said. “This change in policy could limit the number of new solar projects in the state.”

However, with the price of silicon falling significantly, solar panels are becoming more affordable. And as battery technology advances, the solar energy industry can expect to see a better battery model in the coming years.

“It’s like how we envisioned ourselves going to the moon,” Wolter said. “We don’t know how long it will take until we become a solar society, but we know that it’s going to happen.”