Humans have long recognized the benefits that the sun provides us every day. We may have gone from considering it a deity to understanding its place in the universe, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve spent thousands of years working to harness its energy.
Both the Greeks and Romans used to use light from the sun to light their torches. History shows us that humans were lighting fires by reflecting sunlight onto combustible materials over 2,700 years ago. Many buildings used to get built in ways where the sun could naturally heat the home, and this approach is something that we still use today.
By the 18th century, we were figuring out how to use solar energy to power ovens, create steamboats, and generate power in other ways. Now we’re using panels to collect the energy for the sun, our home star that supplies us with a year’s worth of energy every day it shines on our planet.
When we consider alternatives to fossil fuel resources, then the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy is often the first debate that gets reviewed. These are the crucial considerations to review as we continue to look for emissions-free options to generate power.
List of the Advantages of Solar Energy
1. Solar energy is a resource that pays for itself over time.
The average price for solar panels in the United States can be as high as $3.35 per watt, but some geographic regions can see costs that are up to 30% lower. That means the average installation price for homeowners is under $15,000 after taking advantage of solar tax credits. The cost of this technology has fallen by 20% since 2015, and the U.S. federal tax credit takes 26% of the expense away after the completion of the project.
That means you can have access to free energy once you make up the difference in the installation cost. Most homeowners will reach their break-even point with solar energy at the 10-year mark, but it can happen significantly faster in areas with high utility costs.
2. Using solar energy means that people can insure themselves against higher power costs.
The average solar panel system has an expected lifetime of 25 years. That means you know for certain what your Levelized Cost of Energy will be during that time. If utility rates increase, you’re still going to be paying the same amount since you bought your installation upfront. As long as homeowners install a system that meets their kilowatt-hour needs, the cost becomes predictable.
Adding a high-capacity battery to manage the home’s overnight power needs can get someone off of the grid entirely, adding another layer of benefits to this particular advantage.
3. Solar power is an environmentally friendly solution.
Although it takes fossil fuel resources to create solar panels and collectors, the time it takes to reach a net gain is minimal. The Australian government estimates through their research body CSIRO that it takes 18 months to create a net emissions loss when using this technology – and that figure was published in 2009. Over a decade of improvements are expected to reduce that number even further.
When we consider the lifespan of the average panel is 25 years, the emissions payback profile is extremely high. It may cost a little more at first to install this system, but a transition to solar energy will immediately lower a household’s carbon footprint.
4. Solar power is widely available in almost every market.
Current estimates regarding the lifespan of our sun are that it will hang around for at least 6 billion years. When it provides us with solar radiation that heats our world and gives us light, then we receive up to 120,000 terawatts every day. Even the geographic regions that traditionally see plenty of cloud cover still receive significant levels of solar access for power generation.
The best regions in the United States produce about 4.7 kilowatt-hours for every 1kw of solar panels instead. Even in cloudy areas in the northeast and northwest average about 2.9 kilowatt-hours per 1kw of solar panels per day.
5. The use of solar energy reduces the cost of electricity for the average user.
Feed-in tariff and net metering schemes allow homeowners and businesses to sell the excessive levels of electricity their systems produce. That can create cash-in-hand or bill credits when more get created than what gets consumed. In a high-solar state like California, a 25-year installation can produce up to $30,000 in revenues in addition to the cost savings that this technology provides.
Although the cost benefits might not be high enough to justify the use of lending products and debt, solar energy can still be a potentially profitable consideration for many homeowners and companies.
6. Solar energy produces power quietly without heavy maintenance requirements.
Solar panels have minimal moving parts. Even the large farms install them on small rotational devices to maximize exposure to sunlight, and that is the extent of the work that needs to be done on them. Photovoltaics on a rooftop doesn’t create noise pollution like a wind turbine, and that also means the chances of something breaking down is minimal. Most homeowners can have their system installed and use an annual inspection to maintain it.
7. Diverse applications exist for the use of solar energy.
We can use solar energy today for a wide range of purposes. Electricity generation through photovoltaics is one of the most common options, but solar thermal heat creation is another possibility. Property owners without access to a utility grid can use this technology to produce electricity, distill water without clean supplies, and operate equipment. We use solar to create power for our satellites in space. Sharp has even introduced the idea of transparent solar energy panels that serve as windows, and experiments with solar roadways to generate electricity are currently underway.
8. Transitioning to solar panels could save billions of dollars each year.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the United States reports the monetizing the value of solar energy would add at least another $0.035 to the value of what it provides. The monetary impacts make it a highly beneficial option to consider when reviewing some of the specific changes this policy would create. Water consumption would drop in 36 states for starters, providing enough access to hydrate over 1 million households.
Moving to solar energy would decrease air pollution expenses by over $167 billion by stopping health and environmental damage. Reducing the U.S. carbon footprint could also save over $250 billion in climate change expenses while saving over 25,000 lives per year.
9. Energy production costs for solar energy is almost zero after installation.
Solar energy doesn’t require an outside power supply to function. That means the production costs are practically nothing. The only expense to consider in most situations is the cost of manufacturing and installing the components. That’s why the high upfront costs are immediately recoverable, especially when considering a large-scale concentrated farm.
This benefit also takes advantage of the fact that less energy gets lost during long-distance transmissions with solar energy. Efficiency levels aren’t as high as they are for nuclear energy, but it is competitive with coal and natural gas for electricity generation.
10. Solar energy production works with times of maximum demand.
The highest levels of energy demand occur between 11 am and 4 pm in most cultures. That means the presence of solar energy can serve as a supplement to the baseload that exists within a utility. This benefit works so well that the markets that see the highest demands on energy supplies with large-scale installations often have cheaper rates for each kilowatt-hour.
This benefit also improves the security of the energy grid. Local solar installations can supplement what homeowners and businesses use when the power supply from the utility goes out or gets shut off purposely. The impact of fires at substations or overloads reduces dramatically with this technology.
List of the Disadvantages of Solar Energy
1. Solar energy can be weather-dependent technology.
We can collect solar energy during days when the clouds appear, or it decides to rain. The only problem with this outcome is that it lowers the efficiency of the system dramatically. Solar panels can lose up to 50% of their productive capacity when cloud cover blocks the sun. It only takes a few days in a row like this to have a noticeably adverse impact on local systems.
This disadvantage may not apply to solar thermal systems that generate heat as the primary power option.
2. We can only collect solar energy during daylight hours.
The biggest limitation of solar energy right now is the fact that we can only collect it when the sun is present. Moonlight doesn’t have the same capacity to generate power using our current technologies. That means we must either tie utility systems into homes and businesses that use this resource or provide high-capacity storage for the power created during the day.
Solar-plus-storage installations are becoming more popular because they include lithium-ion batteries that can retain a charge for overnight use. The cost to add a battery can be up to 20% of the panel installation estimate, so this issue depends on each situation as to whether it is a disadvantage. Tesla’s 14-kilowatt-hour battery has an estimated cost of $7,100. If you want a system that could supply 24 hours of power in an emergency, then the storage would cost as much as the panel installation.
3. Solar panels will take up a lot of space.
Homeowners that decide to incorporate photovoltaic panels to produce energy will discover that their entire roof gets covered to meet power generation needs. Some properties may require additional ground-based panels to reach the necessary levels of electricity creation. When we look at large-scale installations that produce power for communities, this disadvantage of solar becomes very evident.
The Noor Complex in Morocco is the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant in the world. Its location in the Sahara Desert provides a 580-megawatt capacity that supplies energy to 1 million people. Tamil Nadu in India has a solar farm that produces 648 megawatts, and it covers an area of 10 square kilometers.
4. You cannot install solar panels in some situations.
Rooftop solar panels use a mounting system that “racks” them to a roof. Some materials, especially for older homes, do not receive this technology well. Anyone with cedar or slate tiles is not going to benefit from this technology without a significant expense to change the structure. Since historical homes can’t always go through this change, it may not be possible to use photovoltaics.
Anyone who lives somewhere with skylights, roof decks, or other additions may not benefit from the use of solar panels either. Even when considering large-scale farms for electricity production, a flat and consistently sunny region will work better than a mountainous one with persistent cloud cover.
5. It isn’t always easy to find a high-quality local installer.
Most communities have one reputable solar installer available for these projects. That means it can be challenging to find comparative bids for the work that homeowners want to get finished. Most reps want a 20-year contract, which means a significant upfront commitment becomes necessary to complete the installation. Even in the best-case scenario, solar is still going to be more expensive than maintaining a utility connection in the short-term, so anyone who might be moving in the near future isn’t going to benefit from this project.
6. The cost profile of solar energy will only come down so far.
Although the cost of solar panel installations is declining, it will always come at a specific cost that is higher than other energy resources. Some solar cells require materials that are rare to find, including copper indium gallium selenide and cadmium telluride. You’ll find these materials necessary for the thin-film cells that are necessary for some installations. It may be financially wise to look at other renewable options, such as wind energy or geothermal, when those materials are necessary to complete the installation.
It is essential to note that the materials listed above qualify as toxic or hazardous. Several items, including lead and hydrochloric acid, are necessary for the manufacturing process and could create problems on some properties. That also means you must recycle old panels instead of just throwing them away.
7. Large-scale solar installations can’t be used for other purposes.
One of the advantages of wind energy is that we can still use the land around the turbines for agricultural purposes or other needs while producing electricity. We don’t have the same luxury when looking at the completion of a solar farm. The panels cover the ground in specific ways where it becomes impossible to use the installation area for any other purpose. That’s why the largest solar producers try to use desert areas that are not currently under development for other needs.
8. Natural inefficiencies are built into solar energy systems.
The most efficient solar panels on the market today convert approximately 30% of the available energy from the sun into usable power. Older panels installed between 2000-2009 might have an efficiency rating below 15%, while those put in place in the 1990s could be at less than 10%. The good news is that the rates are improving, and transmission losses are significantly less than other forms of electricity production.
The bad news is that natural inefficiencies cannot be removed from solar energy production because of the physics involved. The Second Law of Thermodynamics suggests that the maximum efficiency rate for a fixed-panel system is 55%, while the ones that track the sun can achieve an 85% rating. Nuclear power in the United States already achieves an average efficiency rating of 91%.
9. The lifetime of solar panels is less than other electricity production techniques.
The average lifespan of a modern solar panel is about 25 years. Assuming that correct care and routine inspections take place, then it is feasible to see 35 to 40 years of service with the systems installed today. That’s about the same amount of time that a wind turbine will operate when generating electricity.
As of 2020, the power plants that use fossil fuels are still a better long-term solution for large-scale electricity production. A nuclear power plant has an operational design lifespan of 30 to 40 years, with some facilities expected to reach 80 to 100 years with ongoing maintenance before being retired. Most coal-fired power plants have a lifespan of about 50 years, and three-quarters of them in the United States are at least 30 years old.
10. Solar panels can reflect sunlight in concentrated beams that could be destructive.
The installation of solar power towers has created a unique disadvantage in the fact that it can create concentrated beams of reflective light. The intensity of these rays can kill insects and birds that fly into them. Humans coming into contact with this energy can experience severe burns, which means careful consideration must take place when finalizing panel placement.
11. Concentrating solar thermal plants use lots of water.
Even if all of the other disadvantages aren’t present, many CSP facilities require water to clean off the collectors or concentrators. Some use the liquid to cool the turbine generators. Since most large-scale facilities are in desert locations, the facility can drain the resources that local plants and wildlife need for survival. Operations that use cooling towers can draw up to 650 gallons for every megawatt-hour produced. Dry-cooling tech can reduce this issue by up to 90%, but that means lower efficiencies and higher costs.
Dry cooling technology is not as effective when it operates in temperatures above 100°F, which enhances the issues with this disadvantage for most CSP facilities.
12. Solar energy still has a greenhouse gas emissions profile to consider.
Most estimates regarding the manufacturing, transportation, installation, and maintenance of solar panel systems suggest that this technology produces up to 0.18 pounds of CO2 equivalent for every kilowatt-hour produced. Concentrating facilities may create up to 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide at the same level. These figures are significantly less than coal or natural gas, but it would be inaccurate to say that this renewable resource is entirely free of emissions.
Homeowners should consider installing solar panels if the desire is to save some money on their long-term energy expenses. Although the initial expense is somewhat high, the cost-benefits are clear. It is an environmentally responsible decision that can provide some financial benefits over time. Using solar can lower electricity bills while helping to earn some tax incentives.
The presence of solar panels can also add value to a property or encourage customers to use a business more often. Several jurisdictions across the United States exempt this technology from property taxes.
The advantages and disadvantages of solar panels must go through a review for small and large installations alike. Many of the key points present a trade-off that requires individualized evaluations to determine if the benefits outweigh the costs. The sun provides us with abundant and clean energy to use, but the technology we use to collect it right now is far from perfect from a carbon footprint viewpoint.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.