Solar energy – pros & challenges
Solar Energy: An Overview
With the growing threat of climate change due to the excessive release of carbon emissions, many nations are looking to clean energy alternatives to replace traditional fossil fuels.
Of all the clean energy alternatives, solar has arguably been the most expensive though prices have been declining. However, after considering the pros and cons along with the expectation that prices will continue to decline, the future of solar energy is looking rather bright.1
The pros of solar energy include that it is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and has a low impact on the environment and the potential for any country to produce it. The cons are that it only produces energy when the sun is shining, needs a significant amount of land, and that certain solar technologies require rare materials.
- Solar energy is becoming an increasingly cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels.
- Solar energy is a sustainable energy source, has a low environmental impact, and promotes energy independence.
- On the other hand, it is limited by how long the sun is out, may cause a scarcity of materials, and contains hazardous materials similar to electronics.
- Pricey disadvantages of solar energy may be rendered negligible by technological advances that increase efficiency and storage capacity.
- Increasing the incentives for the development of solar energy may be worthwhile.
- Large scale solar power generation requires a large area of land.
- At present, solar cells utilize only a small percentage of sunlight. Increasing solar cells efficiency is a big challenge. Moreover, when the efficiency is increased, the amount of land required will be reduced.
- Solar energy production facilities need a huge investment to set up.
- Not every region in the world receives enough sunlight to depend on it fully.
- Ensuring power supply in the night times when there is no sunlight requires storage.
- The clean energy industry is facing a skilled labour shortage. Training a lot of people for the required skill set to match the growing solar industry is another challenge.
- Solar cell manufacturing requires toxic chemicals such as sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid etc. Developing efficient solar cells using less toxic chemicals is a big challenge.
Solar Energy vs. Wind Energy
Both wind and solar energy are two of the fastest-growing sources of renewable energy. Both energy sources help to cut down pollution and offer alternatives to fossil fuels, however, there are notable differences between the two.
The turbines that power wind energy are less harmful to the environment than solar panels. Furthermore, they produce more electricity than solar panels and can be installed offshore. Unlike solar, wind energy can be harnessed both day and night. However, wind is an unpredictable energy source. Turbines are also quite noisy, and, like solar panels, require a lot of land space thus don’t make sense for densely populated areas.
Ultimately, solar panels are the more powerful and predictable source of energy. They require less space, are less noisy, and can be installed on rooftops, etc. in densely populated areas.
Advantages of Solar Energy
1. Renewable Energy Source
Among all the benefits of solar panels, the most important thing is that solar energy is a truly renewable energy source. It can be harnessed in all areas of the world and is available every day. We cannot run out of solar energy, unlike some of the other sources of energy.
Solar energy will be accessible as long as we have the sun, therefore sunlight will be available to us for at least 5 billion years when according to scientists the sun is going to die.
2. Reduces Electricity Bills
Since you will be meeting some of your energy needs with the electricity your solar system has generated, your energy bills will drop. How much you save on your bill will be dependent on the size of the solar system and your electricity or heat usage.
For example, if you are a business using commercial solar panels this switch can have huge benefits because the large system size can cover large chunks of your energy bills.
Moreover, not only will you be saving on the electricity bill, but there is also a possibility to receive payments for the surplus energy that you export back to the grid through the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG). If you generate more electricity than you use (considering that your solar panel system is connected to the grid).
3. Diverse Applications
Solar energy can be used for diverse purposes. You can generate electricity (photovoltaics) or heat (solar thermal). Solar energy can be used to produce electricity in areas without access to the energy grid, to distil water in regions with limited clean water supplies and to power satellites in space.
Solar energy can also be integrated into the materials used for buildings. Not long ago Sharp introduced transparent solar energy windows.
4. Low Maintenance Costs
Solar energy systems generally don’t require a lot of maintenance. You only need to keep them relatively clean, so cleaning them a couple of times per year will do the job. If in doubt, you can always rely on specialised cleaning companies, which offer this service from around £25-£35.
Most reliable solar panel manufacturers offer 20-25 years warranty.
Also, as there are no moving parts, there is no wear and tear. The inverter is usually the only part that needs to be changed after 5-10 years because it is continuously working to convert solar energy into electricity and heat (solar PV vs. solar thermal). Apart from the inverter, the cables also need maintenance to ensure your solar power system runs at maximum efficiency.
So, after covering the initial cost of the solar system, you can expect very little spending on maintenance and repair work.
5. Technology Development
Technology in the solar power industry is constantly advancing and improvements will intensify in the future. Innovations in quantum physics and nanotechnology can potentially increase the effectiveness of solar panels and double, or even triple, the electrical input of the solar power systems.
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Disadvantages of Solar Energy
The initial cost of purchasing a solar system is fairly high. This includes paying for solar panels, inverter, batteries, wiring, and the installation. Nevertheless, solar technologies are constantly developing, so it is safe to assume that prices will go down in the future.
Although solar energy can still be collected during cloudy and rainy days, the efficiency of the solar system drops. Solar panels are dependent on sunlight to effectively gather solar energy. Therefore, a few cloudy, rainy days can have a noticeable effect on the energy system. You should also take into account that solar energy cannot be collected during the night.
On the other hand, if you also require your water heating solution to work at night or during wintertime, thermodynamic panels are an alternative to consider.
For a breakdown of how effective solar panels are in the winter, check out our video:
3. Solar Energy Storage Is Expensive
Solar energy has to be used right away, or it can be stored in large batteries. These batteries, used in off-the-grid solar systems, can be charged during the day so that the energy is used at night. This is a good solution for using solar energy all day long but it is also quite expensive.
In most cases, it is smarter to just use solar energy during the day and take energy from the grid during the night (you can only do this if your system is connected to the grid). Luckily your energy demand is usually higher during the day so you can meet most of it with solar energy.
4. Uses a Lot of Space
The more electricity you want to produce, the more solar panels you will need, as you want to collect as much sunlight as possible. Solar PV panels require a lot of space and some roofs are not big enough to fit the number of solar panels that you would like to have.
An alternative is to install some of the panels in your yard but they need to have access to sunlight. If you don’t have the space for all the panels that you wanted, you can opt for installing fewer to still satisfy some of your energy needs.
5. Associated with Pollution
Although pollution related to solar energy systems is far less compared to other sources of energy, solar energy can be associated with pollution. Transportation and installation of solar systems have been associated with the emission of greenhouse gases.
There are also some toxic materials and hazardous products used during the manufacturing process of solar photovoltaic systems, which can indirectly affect the environment.