By Jeff Ray

ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – The Earth does not capture much of the sun’s energy, but there is certainly much that we do receive. Out of the total solar output, given the Earth’s size and distance, our planet intercepts less than a billionth of the photons that the sun’s fusion process throws out into space. This miniscule amount of total output works out to be about 164 watts per square meter over Earth.

For a quick overview of solar power, read this nice summary, courtesy of the University of Oregon.

It is difficult not to consider the sun when talking about energy. It is, after all, our physical center and anchor, representing 99.8 percent of the total mass of the solar system. It provides just about all of our energy sources, directly or indirectly. It was sunlight that produced biomass, that morphed into oil and gass deposits. We are burning the efforts of captured photons from millions of years ago.

Getting our power directly from the sun has been a dream of engineers for more than 100 years. The global installion of photovoltaic panels grew 20 percent from 2009 to 2010. Some estimates say that demand will increase fivefold by 2014.

Click here to read more about those estimates.

But if you want to drive up to the largest solar panel array in Texas — that is not built by a power company — pay a visit to the University of Texas at Arlington. Up on the roof of a parking garage sits a massive array of over 28,000 square feet, which serves as both an electric generation source and shade.

This is a system that was practically free to the university. Stimulus money paid for the bulk of the $2.2 million cost while Oncor paid for the rest, a split of $1.88 million and $393,000, respectively. Oncor buys the excess solar energy that the rooftop array produces. On long sunny days, its output far exceeds what the garage itself consumes. Oncor benefits from having increased generation when it is most needed — hot summer days when air conditioners are going full blast across the city.

This is, at the time of installation at least, a state-of-the-art project in solar energy production. Nicholas Schroeder, the UTA engineer in charge of the system, said that, over the first year, there have been zero maintenance costs other than spraying off the panels a few times — more the result of nearby construction than from daily wear. And the panels have exceeded production expectations by about 20 percent.

Doing the math, if solar panel efficiency is doubled (right now it is at about a 12 percent to 15 percent conversion rate), then the 10-year cost/benefit calculation gets you to even. The industry is that close to making solar panels a common sight on rooftops across the nation. Solar power will never supplant coal, oil or gas. But it can go a long way to buffering the economic and environmental cost of fossil fuels.

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