For the past few decades, climate change has been a major topic of debate among politicians and the population alike.
Carbon emissions – more commonly known as greenhouse gases – are the leading contributors to the harmful effects our climate is experiencing. As a result, many countries across the globe are turning their hopes to clean energy alternatives in lieu of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas.
Solar energy is among the frontrunners for providing Earth with a clean, renewable source of energy for years to come.
If you’re unfamiliar with solar energy, it’s as straight-forward as it sounds. Basically, the sun emits energy in the form of light that then is captured by special panels and converted into thermal or electrical energy.
This obviously has its benefits and there are many others pros to solar energy when it comes to powering our planet; however, like all energy sources, there are tradeoffs.
Typically, solar has been one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy under consideration. This has been a major deterrence for countries looking for a wide-scale solution to their energy needs.
The interesting news is that solar panel prices over the last several years have dropped significantly, and companies such as Tesla are furiously working to make them even more affordable.
Let’s dive in to some of the pros and cons of solar energy.
Solar energy is quite possibly the cleanest and certainly the most abundant energy source on the planet.
You can always count on the sun to rise and fall day after day, which also makes it very reliable.
In the U.S. specifically, solar power and its advocates face a number of unique, yet exciting challenges. The pros listed below are some of the reasons why it may be worth pursuing as a long-term energy source.
Solar Energy is a Renewable and Sustainable Resource
First and foremost, let’s introduce the obvious into the equation. Solar energy is a renewable energy source, which means that we can never deplete our supply.
Solar energy will be available to us for at least the next 5 billion years. In comparison to our ever-decreasing supply of fossil fuels and nuclear fuel, it’s essentially unlimited.
This is what makes solar power an attractive option for Earth’s ever-growing energy demands. Once some of the cons we’ll discuss get solved, solar might just be the answer to all of our problems.
Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions
It’s no secret that traditional fossil fuels such as coal and gas emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even nuclear energy releases a small, though typically insignificant, amount.
The process of turning solar energy into electrical power doesn’t release greenhouse gases into the environment, which makes it a popular choice among climate change politicians.
Even though there are some emissions that can be associated with the manufacturing part of the process, they are negligible when compared to other energy sources in use today.
Off the Grid and Usable Almost Anywhere
One of the cool aspects of solar energy is its availability across the globe. Even third-world countries without access to conventional electricity can become energy producers.
With the exception of places like Alaska, the sun shines every day pretty much everywhere. Since solar power doesn’t require access to a power grid, it can generate electricity anywhere panels can be installed.
This creates a large amount of energy independence, which is highly desirable, especially for home-owners who no longer have to rely on utility companies to power their homes.
Plenty of Unique Applications
Energy sources like nuclear can only be used for powering a large grid or in special applications such as a submarine.
Solar is unique in that it has a wide variety of applications, with more coming out every day.
Solar can be used to power street lights, homes, cars, and even small electronic devices, such as your phone. Think a mini-nuclear reactor can power your phone? I don’t think so.
While solar may not be as powerful on a larger scale as nuclear, it certainly has its perks as a more versatile energy source.
Extremely Low Maintenance
Another pro of solar that alternative energy sources don’t have is that it requires little to no maintenance, especially when compared to things like nuclear.
Most residential solar panels require cleaning once, maybe twice per year. The typical manufacturer’s warranty lasts anywhere from 20 to 25 years. Even though they might have higher upfront costs, you can see how easily recouped they can be over their lifespan.
Technology is Rapidly Evolving
With climate change being a hot topic, many of the world’s smartest minds are turning to solar research in hopes of making key technological advances. And it’s working.
Nighttime energy storage is a leading concern of solar energy non-supporters. While solutions are currently expensive, they are improving and become less costly.
Fortunately, this isn’t as big a problem as many people think. Turns out peoples’ highest demand for energy is during the middle of the day, which is exactly when the sun is shining the most.
Quantum physics research and advancements in nanotech also have the potential to greatly increase the power output of solar panels, which could lead to wider-scale use of them across the globe.
New tech and discoveries continue to be made on a daily basis, and it’s going to be interesting to watch and see where solar ends up even in just a few short years.
While solar power certainly has its advantages, it is not without its disadvantages.
Lots of people doubt the ability of solar to become a significant portion of a country’s power generation. Places like Germany are doing their best to prove these non-believers wrong.
Solar can be expensive, with higher upfront costs to the public than other energy sources. There’s still the concern of “what happens when it’s night and the sun’s not shining?”
There are a few other cons which we’ll discuss more in detail below. Let’s dive in.
High Initial Costs
Currently, the biggest downside to solar energy is the upfront investment to its purchasers.
Solar has proven itself to be a strong competitor as a viable source of energy for individual homes. Unfortunately, that comes at a fairly high price. Costs for the highest quality solar panels can easily be above $1000, and it usually requires more than one to power a home.
With that being the case, over the span of 20 to 25 years (a typical solar panel’s lifetime), it turns out to be much cheaper than paying the utility company for use of their grid-supplied energy.
Solar is an Intermittent Energy Source
If cost is solar’s biggest downside, its intermittency is second in line.
We mentioned above that nighttime was one of the largest concerns of non-solar supporters. It’s a fairly valid one since solar energy can only be generated while the sun is shining.
At night and during days of heavy overcast, the amount of solar energy produced is reduced heavily, if not completely to zero.
This typically wouldn’t be a problem if energy storage wasn’t so expensive. The energy harnessed by the sun during the day can be easily stored and utilized during off-peak hours, however, it currently comes at a high price tag.
Countries, such as Germany – the world’s leader in solar generation – are working hard to develop solutions to reduce energy storage costs and improve efficiency.
An energy source such as nuclear doesn’t have this issue and is able to generate electricity around the clock. When compared to other renewables though, such as wind, solar is much more reliable.
Comparably Low Power Output
In comparison to nuclear, oil, and gas, solar has a much lower power output per unit.
Solar is unable to provide sufficient energy to power something like a large manufacturing plant with lots of big machinery. Perhaps someday, but for now, it would require far too many panels to remain viable.
Solar has its unique advantages and uses, but meeting high-power energy demands isn’t one of them.
Requires Lots of Space
To go along with its low power output, solar energy requires a lot of space to produce significant amounts of energy.
When looking at it as a business, how much real estate needed versus energy provided is a factor that can’t be ignored.
The mean power density for solar is about 170 W/m2, much more than other renewable energy sources, but nowhere near the amounts of energy sources such as nuclear.
Meeting high energy demands requires high power density to remain competitive and affordably priced. Solar can be great for smaller uses such as individual homes or cars, but it struggles to compete against alternative energy sources based on its low power density (space to power output ratio).
Requires Rare Materials
The last con we’ll discuss is the material used to create solar cells.
Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas are fairly easily to find. They aren’t renewable, but they are, at least currently, abundant in nature.
Solar cells utilize certain materials that can be expensive and not as commonly found on Earth.
Cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide are a couple of solar cell examples that fit this bill.
When it comes to creating a long-term plan for meeting Earth’s energy demands, solar without a doubt has to be involved in the equation.
It has a number of pros, which include unique applications of the energy source, that other options can’t provide. This alone means it has a certain gap that it needs to fill.
Add on its ever-improving technology and the fact that it’s renewable and produces zero greenhouse gases, and you’ve got yourself a solid, green power source for generations to come.
Solar’s downsides include high upfront costs, lower power density, and intermittency. Most of these are current problems that can eventually be solved by technological advances.
When it comes to energy of the future, solar certainly looks to be promising with minimal disadvantages.
Where do you stand on the matter?
Featured Image Credit: Marufish @ Flickr