Climate change has been a major topic of discussion among politicians and the general public for the better part of the last few decades.
Carbon emissions – also known as greenhouse gases – are the most significant contributors to the harmful effects on our climate that we are currently experiencing. Because of this, many countries around the world are placing their hopes in clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in order to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
Solar energy is considered to be one of the most promising technologies for providing the world with a clean, renewable source of energy for many years to come.
When it comes to solar energy, it is as simple as it sounds, even if you are unfamiliar with the subject. Essentially, the sun emits energy in the form of light, which is then captured by special panels and converted into thermal or electrical energy, depending on the application.
This obviously has its advantages, and there are numerous other advantages to solar energy when it comes to supplying electricity to our planet; however, as with all energy sources, there are tradeoffs to be considered.
Solar energy has traditionally been considered to be one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy under consideration. This has proven to be a significant deterrent for countries seeking a large-scale solution to their energy requirements.
Let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.
Pros of Solar Energy (Advantages)
Quite possibly the cleanest and most abundant energy source available on the planet, solar energy is also the most expensive.
You can always rely on the sun to rise and set on a daily basis, which makes it a very dependable natural phenomenon.
Solar energy and its supporters in the United States, in particular, are confronted with a number of unique, yet exciting, challenges. The advantages listed below are just a few of the reasons why it might be worthwhile to pursue as a long-term energy source.
1. Solar Energy is a Renewable and Sustainable Resource
Before we get started, let’s address the most obvious point. The use of solar energy is a renewable energy source, which means that we will never run out of supplies in the future.
It is expected that solar energy will be available to us for at least the next 5 billion years. When compared to our ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels and nuclear fuel, it appears to be virtually limitless in scope.
This is what makes solar energy such a viable option for meeting the world’s ever-increasing energy demands. Once some of the drawbacks that we will discuss are addressed, solar energy may prove to be the solution to all of our problems.
2. Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Traditional fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, are well-known for emitting a significant amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even nuclear energy emits a small amount of radiation, though it is typically insignificant.
Solar energy conversion does not result in the release of greenhouse gases into the environment, which makes it a popular choice among climate change politicians seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Even though there are some emissions that can be associated with the manufacturing portion of the process, they are insignificant when compared to the emissions produced by other energy sources currently in use.
3. Off the Grid and Usable Almost Anywhere
One of the most appealing aspects of solar energy is that it is available all over the world. Even third-world countries that do not have access to conventional electricity have the potential to become producers of energy.
With the exception of a few places like Alaska, the sun shines nearly every day almost everywhere. It is possible to generate electricity anywhere solar panels can be installed due to the fact that solar power does not require access to a power grid.
Energy independence is greatly increased as a result, which is highly desirable, particularly for home-owners who no longer have to rely on utility companies to provide electricity for their residences.
4. Plenty of Unique Applications
Energy sources such as nuclear can only be used for large-scale grid power or for specialized applications such as submarine propulsion.
Solar is unique in that it has a diverse range of applications, with new ones being developed on a daily basis.
Small electronic devices, such as your phone and outdoor solar lights, can be powered by solar energy, which can be used to power everything from street lights to homes to cars. Do you believe a mini-nuclear reactor can provide enough power to charge your phone? No, I don’t believe so.
While solar energy is not as powerful as nuclear energy on a large scale, it does have some advantages in that it is a more versatile energy source.
5. Extremely Low Maintenance
Solar has a number of advantages over alternative energy sources, including the fact that it requires little to no maintenance, especially when compared to things like nuclear power.
The majority of residential solar panels only require cleaning once or twice a year, at the most. The typical manufacturer’s warranty lasts anywhere from 20 to 25 years, depending on the manufacturer. Despite the fact that they may have higher upfront costs, you can see how easily they can be recouped over the course of their useful lives.
6. Technology is Rapidly Evolving
Because climate change is a hot topic right now, many of the world’s brightest minds are turning their attention to solar research in the hopes of making significant technological advancements. And it’s actually working.
The lack of nighttime energy storage is a major source of concern for those who oppose solar energy. While solutions are currently expensive, they are becoming more cost-effective as technology advances.
Fortunately, this isn’t as serious of a problem as many people believe it to be. The middle of the day, when the sun is shining brightest, appears to be the time of day when people have the greatest demand for energy.
Researchers are working on quantum physics research and advances in nanotechnology that have the potential to significantly increase the power output of solar panels, which could lead to their widespread use on a global scale.
New technology and discoveries are being made on a daily basis, and it will be fascinating to watch and see where solar technology goes in the next few years, even if it is only a few years.
Cons of Solar Energy (Disadvantages)
While solar energy undoubtedly has its advantages, it is not without its drawbacks, as discussed below.
Many people are skeptical about the ability of solar energy to contribute significantly to a country’s electricity generation. Places like Germany are putting forth their best efforts to disprove the nonbelievers’ claims.
Compared to other energy sources, solar can be more expensive, with higher upfront costs to the general public. There is still the question of “what happens when it’s dark and the sun isn’t shining?” to consider.
Additionally, there are some disadvantages, which we will go over in greater detail below. Let’s get started.
1. High Initial Costs
Currently, the most significant disadvantage of solar energy is the high initial investment required by its purchasers.
Solar energy has proven to be a formidable competitor as a viable source of energy for individual homes in recent years. Unfortunately, there is a significant cost associated with this. Solar panels of the highest quality can easily cost more than $1000, and it is common for more than one to be required to power a home.
When taken into consideration over the course of 20 to 25 years (the typical solar panel’s lifespan), it turns out to be significantly less expensive than paying the utility company for the use of their grid-supplied electricity.
2. Solar is an Intermittent Energy Source
If cost is the most significant drawback of solar energy, intermittency is the second most significant drawback.
We mentioned earlier that one of the most common concerns of non-solar supporters was the lack of light at night. It’s a reasonable argument, considering that solar energy can only be generated when the sun is shining.
During the night and on days with heavy overcast, the amount of solar energy produced is significantly reduced, if not completely eliminated.
This would normally not be a problem if energy storage weren’t so prohibitively expensive. The energy captured by the sun during the day can be easily stored and used during off-peak hours; however, it is currently at a high cost due to the high cost of fossil fuels.
Countries such as Germany, which is the world leader in solar energy generation, are putting forth significant effort to develop solutions that will lower the costs of energy storage while increasing efficiency.
A nuclear energy source, on the other hand, does not have this problem and is capable of generating electricity around the clock. Solar, on the other hand, is far more dependable when compared to other renewables, such as wind.
3. Comparably Low Power Output
In comparison to nuclear, oil, and gas, solar produces significantly less power per unit of energy.
Large manufacturing plants with lots of heavy machinery, for example, cannot be powered by solar energy because it does not have enough energy to do so. Perhaps in the future, but for the time being, it would require far too many panels to be economically viable.
Solar energy has a number of distinct advantages and applications, but meeting high-power energy demands is not one of them.
4. Requires Lots of Space
Solar energy, in addition to having a low power output, necessitates a large amount of space in order to produce significant amounts of energy.
It is impossible to overestimate the amount of real estate required in relation to the amount of energy available when looking at it from a business perspective.
Solar has a mean power density of approximately 170 W/m2, which is significantly higher than that of other renewable energy sources, but nowhere near that of conventional energy sources such as nuclear.
In order to remain competitive and reasonably priced while meeting high energy demands, high power density is required. Solar energy can be excellent for smaller applications such as individual homes or automobiles, but it struggles to compete against alternative energy sources because of its low power density compared to other sources (space to power output ratio).
5. Requires Rare Materials
The final disadvantage that we will discuss is the material that is used to make solar cells.
Coal, oil, and natural gas are all readily available fossil fuels that can be used to generate electricity. They are not renewable, but they are abundant in nature at the moment, at least for the time being.
Solar cells make use of a variety of materials that are both expensive and not readily available on the planet.
Solar cells made of cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide are two examples of materials that fit this description.
When it comes to developing a long-term strategy for meeting the world’s energy needs, solar energy is without a doubt an important component of the equation.
It has a number of advantages, including the ability to use the energy source for a variety of applications that are not available from other sources. This alone indicates that it has a certain void that needs to be filled.
When you combine its ever-improving technology with the fact that it is renewable and emits zero greenhouse gases, you have a reliable, environmentally friendly energy source that will last for generations to come.
The disadvantages of solar energy include high initial costs, lower power density, and intermittency. The majority of these are current issues that will be resolved in the future as a result of technological advances.
When it comes to the energy of the future, solar certainly appears to be the most promising option, with the fewest drawbacks.
What are your thoughts on the subject?
Featured Image Credit: Marufish @ Flickr