For centuries, people have been finding ways to gather power from the sun. The ancient Romans put glass and mica in their southern-facing doors to harness the sun’s warmth. In 1861, August Mouchout created a steam engine fueled by the sun. And in 1953, Bell Laboratories developed the precursor to the modern solar cell. In recent years, the need to “go green” and promotion of sustainable infrastructure has increased the interest in solar energy technology .
We decided to create a visualization marking the growth of use of solar energy in the United States while showing the decrease in the cost to implement this technology. We started out by looking at the cost per watt, including installation. In 1998, installing 1 watt of solar power would cost you $10.80. That dropped $3.30 over the next ten years, down to $7.50 in 2009 – about a 30% decrease in cost!
Next we looked at the total of solar-produced energy in the United States. The US saw more than three-fold growth in energy generation from 2000 to 2009, moving from slightly under 1,000 megawatts to just over 3,500 megawatts. To give you a better understanding of the amounts we are talking about here, the average toaster would use 30-45 watts, a 40” LCD flat-screen TV uses around 195 watts an hour, and the average American household uses roughly 14,000 kWh (kilowatts/hour) annually.
Next we looked at the whole nation to see which states were producing the most solar energy. We found that the growth here is also large, moving from just 4 states (California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Nevada) in 2007, to 15 states (the original four, plus Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii) in 2010.
Combining these bits of data gave us a better understanding of where US solar energy has been and the rate at which it is growing–we hope it does the same for you!
How We Made the Visualization
The idea behind using moss to create this data visualization was to give it some life while also tying it directly to the sun. Originally inspired by the moss graffiti we had seen on the internet, we were going to grow the moss in the shapes of the states and graphs using a mixture of yogurt, beer, and sugar, but the Michigan weather did not permit us to do so (definitely something to try again this spring). We were still interested in using moss as the medium for this project, though, so we decided to harvest some from a springin one of our employees’ backyards and try to shape the moss ourselves. After digging up the moss, we washed out as much of the dirt as we could to avoid staining the infographic poster. Next we dried the moss, cutting as much of the remaining dirt and excess root structure away as possible. Once dried, the moss was molded into the shapes and sizes we needed to fill the graphs and maps. Our plan is to see how long we can sustain the moss; the glue we used to attach it to the paper doesn’t seem to be having an adverse effect, but only time will tell how long we can keep it alive. We’re spritzing it with water from time to time, and keeping the visualization board in a shady spot in our office.
Hopefully next spring we can try again to grow some moss naturally, but until then we have something green in our office reminding us of the sun’s amazingpower and what we can do to be more energy-responsible.