Solar energy is becoming increasingly popular as the world begins to take notice of the carbon emission problems that come with burning fossil fuels, but why all the fuss? Sceptics have become less and less vocal as solar energy’s popularity has grown increasingly unhindered. Below I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.
Advantages of Solar Energy
No greenhouse gases
The first and foremost advantage of solar energy is that it does not emit any greenhouse gases. Solar energy is produced by conducting the sun’s radiation – a process void of any smoke, gas, or other chemical by-product. This is the main driving force behind all green energy technology, as nations attempt to meet climate change obligations in curbing emissions.
Infinite Free Energy
Another advantage of using solar energy is that beyond initial installation, solar energy is one hundred percent free. Solar doesn’t require expensive and on-going raw materials like oil or coal, and requires significantly lower operational labour than conventional power production.
Decentralisation of power
Solar energy offers the potential of decentralisation of power supply in most (sunny) locations, meaning a self-reliant society.
Oil, coal, and gas used to produce conventional electricity is often transported across-country or internationally. This transportation has many additional costs, including monetary costs, pollution costs of transport, all of which is avoided with solar.
Of course, decentralisation has its limits at the moment as some locations get more sunlight than others, but with the advent of domestic electricity storage and solar panel efficiencies always improving this is becoming more of a reality for us all.
A particularly relevant and advantageous feature of solar energy production is that it creates jobs. So far it’s estimated that Europe’s solar industry has created an extra 100,000 jobs.
Solar jobs come in many forms, from manufacturing, installing, monitoring and maintaining solar panels, to research and development, design and policy jobs.
With solar energy currently contributing only an estimated 4% of the world’s electricity, and an industry where raw materials don’t have to be indefinitely purchased and transported, it’s reasonable to assume solar jobs are sustainable if the solar industry can survive the recession.
Solar avoids politics and price volatility
One of the biggest advantages of solar energy is the ability to avoid the politics and price volatility that is increasingly characteristic of the fossil fuel markets.
The sun is an unlimited commodity that can be adequately sourced from many locations, meaning solar avoids the price manipulations and politics that have more than doubled the price of many fossil fuels in the past decade.
While the price of fossil fuels have increased, the per watt price of solar energy production has more than halved in the past decade – and is set to become even cheaper in the near future as better technology and economies of scale take effect.
The best is yet to come
Solar technology is currently improving in leaps and bounds. Across the world, and particularly in Europe, clever clean technology researchers are making enormous developments in solar technology.
What was expensive, bulky, and inefficient yesterday is becoming cheaper, more accessible, and vastly more efficient.
Disadvantages of Solar Energy
Solar doesn’t work at night
Obviously the biggest disadvantages of solar energy production revolve around the fact that it’s not constant. To produce solar electricity there must be sunlight. So energy must be stored or sourced elsewhere at night.
Beyond daily fluctuations, solar production decreases over winter months when there are less sunlight hours and sun radiation is less intense.
A very common criticism is that solar energy production is relatively inefficient. Currently, the efficiency of solar panels – how much of the sun’s energy a solar panel can convert into electrical energy – is at around 22%. This means that a fairly vast amount of surface area is required to produce a lot of electricity.
However, efficiency has developed dramatically over the last five years, and solar panel efficiency should continue to rise steadily over the next five years.
For the moment though, low efficiency is a relevant disadvantage of solar.
But solar inefficiency is an interesting argument, as efficiency is relative. One could ask “inefficient compared to what?” And “What determines efficiency?” Solar panels currently only have a radiation efficiency of up to 22%, however they don’t create the carbon by-product that coal produces and don’t require constant extraction, refinement, and transportation – this surely must count for something on the efficiency scales.
Solar panels are bulky
Solar panels are bulky. This is particularly true of the higher-efficiency, traditional silicon crystalline wafer solar modules. These are the large solar panels that are covered in glass.
New technology thin-film solar modules are much less bulky, and have recently been developed as applications such as solar roof tiles and “amorphous” flexible solar modules. The downfall is that thin-film is currently less efficient than crystalline wafer solar panels.
One of the biggest disadvantages of solar energy is COST
The main hindrance to solar energy becoming widespread is the cost of installing solar panels. Capital costs for installing a home solar system or building a solar farm are high. Particularly obstructive is the fact that installing solar panels has large upfront costs after which the energy trickles in for free.
This is a disadvantage for solar energy production, particularly during a time of recession, but all is not lost. Nuclear is a good example (economically) of energy production that was initially incredibly expensive, but became more feasible once the technology had been developed and when the appropriate energy subsidies were put in place.