Of all the renewable energy sources which currently exist, only solar exceeds any likely future demand3. As long as the sun continues to burn, we can tap energy from it without depleting the source. Therefore, we cannot ignore the sun’s contribution to our energy needs. But like all things, there are advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.
Researchers have, over time, increased their efforts in drawing attention to both sides of the coin when we talk about renewable energy. These energy sources are being explored to tackle the adverse effects of fossil-fueled nonrenewable energy.
Nonrenewable sources- coal, oil, natural gas- are the most significant contributors to rising greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere. These gases cause a heat-trapping effect which speeds up climate change and global warming. The mining and refining processes of these fossil fuels also contribute to damaging our land and water bodies.
Renewable energy sources are the most examined solution to the challenge of fossil fuel damage. Researchers are exploring alternative sources such as solar, hydropower, wind, biomass, and more to growing success. In 2017, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that renewable sources contributed 10.1% of the world’s final energy consumption5. One of these sources is solar.
We produce solar energy using the interaction between the sun and solar panels. Solar panels are created using photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight into electricity. When sunlight hits these PV cells, the photons in the light excite the electrons in the cell, causing them to flow and generate electricity4.
The entire photovoltaic system connects a set of solar panels includes photovoltaic units, batteries, charging controllers, load controllers, inverters, circuit breakers, and wiring. Installing a complete photovoltaic system at home provides everything you need to generate, store, and manage your own electricity.
With the promising capacity of solar energy, individuals, countries, and companies are investing in owning solar panels and reducing their reliance on nonrenewable grids. The U.S. recently surpassed 2 million solar installations, providing 70 gigawatts of energy; enough to power 12 million homes.
Even the UK, which is mainly dependent on wind for its renewable energy, recently hit a 1 million solar installation milestone. Research also continues to improve the efficiency of solar technology, decrease costs, and increase installations.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of solar to consider.
The sun is available, worldwide, for everyone to use. Solar energy is also considered to be renewable because the sun will not deplete as a result of our energy production. Homeowners around the world are installing solar panels on their roofs and in their fields. Individuals and communities can generate their own electricity without dependence on utility companies.
And huge large scale solar farms are now powering whole communities.
The process of converting sunlight into energy does not contribute to pollution. Solar panels absorb the sun’s heat and convert it to DC electricity. An installed solar inverter converts that energy to AC, which is used by most of our appliances.
This process does not involve drilling, blasting, burning, and other activities associated with nonrenewable energy sources. Therefore, we can consider solar energy production a clean process.
Solar energy generation does not cause air, water, land, or noise pollution. Users can install solar panels on homes and schools with no threat of harm. These panels are considered safe for use in every location. All these factors add up to a number of reasons why we can consider solar energy a green energy source.
The equipment needed to generate solar energy has no moving parts. They are durable because there’s little to no wear-and-tear. The only maintenance concern that comes with solar panels is a possible need to clean debris that may be blocking the PV cells from direct sunlight contact.
However, solar panels are coated with materials to prevent this and installed at an angle where debris can easily slide off. Therefore, maintenance needs are minimal.
Solar panels are also a long-term investment. They are expected to last between 25-30 years. Keep in mind; this doesn’t mean that the panels will stop working by the 30-year mark. It just means that output will reduce. That’s enough time to gain back the cost of the initial installation and then some. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed that the output of a standard solar panel would fall by an average of 0.5% per year1.
In some regions, residents can sell their excess electricity to the government. The U.S. Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) mandates that energy companies should provide a portion of their power from renewable energy. While setting up their own infrastructure, they also buy from homeowners with excess electricity.
Countries and regions with RPS include Australia, China, The E.U., U.S, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Chile, Mexico, The Philippines, and a few others. Using solar panels, you can earn some money back from utility companies. Your contribution will also reduce the amount of nonrenewable energy generated for your home or city. In turn, realizing some of the benefits that renewable energy can contribute to reducing climate change.
Electricity costs are unpredictable unless you are in control of your own energy generation. Electricity consumers usually have no choice but to pay whatever price their utility provider sets. Solar provides homeowners with an advantage. With your solar panels set up, you can reduce or eliminate electricity bills for the next 25-30 years.
Some states and regions receive less sunlight than others. Some examples are Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, Chongqing in China, Copenhagen in Denmark, and Russia. Cloudy weather also reduces the output of solar panels as they need sunlight to produce energy. In such regions, solar may not be a feasible solution to their renewable energy needs.
Even in locations with better sun exposure, there is no guarantee of abundant sunlight to sufficiently power users’ buildings. Some users may still have to pay in addition to top up their electricity even after the initial cost of installing solar panels.
However, solar panels do in fact generate electricity when it's cloudy dispelling one of the most common solar energy myths. Meanwhile, technology improves at a pace resulting in increased ability to generate electricity in different weather conditions.
While solar energy may be green, the production of solar panels is not. The photovoltaic cells used in converting sunlight into energy contain hazardous materials. They include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, acetone, and hydrogen fluoride.
If these materials are not handled and disposed of properly, they pose significant pollution risks. Factory workers are also at risk of inhaling poisonous fumes during production.
The primary concern, however, is that energy companies often manufacture their solar panels at factories powered by nonrenewable energy. The amount of electricity needed for such large-scale production is still not always feasible using renewable sources. So while solar energy production does not contribute to GHG emissions, the creation of each solar panel leaves a carbon footprint.
To generate a substantial amount of solar energy, we need a lot of land space. While some homeowners may get by using solar panels on their roofs, this option is not sustainable for larger solar projects. Towns and communities looking to generate shared capacity typically have to find dedicated land space. The problem is, solar panels monopolize land space.
There is a low probability that a solar farm can share land space with other needs, such as agriculture. Installing solar panels on large fields could result in the degradation of land and loss of habitat for some animals2.
There are also concerns about the impact of increased solar activity on the thermal balance of specific areas. The surrounding land could be absorbing more energy, which should generally be reflected back to space. The increased thermal activity could pose a risk to plants and animals which may not survive in the artificially altered environment.
Solar panels and installation costs are high. These panels are also non-movable parts. Individuals and families who live in rented homes may not fully enjoy the benefits of solar if they decide to invest in their own panels. The cost of moving and re-installation over the years may outweigh their regular electricity costs. Primarily if the solar panels do not provide for 100% of their energy needs.
Even if a renter is prepared to manage the losses that may come, their landlord still reserves the right to refuse solar panel installations. The group of people who stand to benefit the most from solar energy at home is therefore homeowners. If renters don’t live in communities with shared solar infrastructure, they may not have access to solar power.
Solar energy is undeniably an essential renewable energy source. It is inexhaustible and can be harnessed by small families and large communities. With its benefits in mind, we should not fail to remember that solar energy also poses some environmental risks. As a result of its viability, researchers all over the world continue to seek new ways to improve solar energy production and reduce its harmful effects.
For now, here’s what we can say conclusively say. Although solar energy is a vast improvement from nonrenewable sources, it is still far from being 100% environment-friendly.
|Photovoltaic Degradation, Rates — An Analytical Review. Dirk C. Jordan and Sarah R. Kurtz. To be published in Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications|
|Gunerhan, Huseyin & Hepbasli, Arif & Giresunlu, U. (2008). Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems. Energy Sources Part A-recovery Utilization and Environmental Effects. 31. 10.1080/15567030701512733.|
|Güney, Mukrimin. (2016). Solar power and application methods. 10.13140/RG.2.1.3329.5447.|
|Wasfi, Mahmud. (2011). Solar Energy and Photovoltaic Systems. JRSE.|
|World Energy Outlook 2018. IEA|