Solar energy is one of the most exciting opportunities we have in the world of renewable energy. The sun gives the entire world all of the energy it needs for an entire year with the sunlight and heat it produces in a single day. This means we have a chance to transition off of fossil fuels and the potential greenhouse gas emissions that they produce. It is also an energy resource that is more of a technology than an actual commodity, which means pricing for it is often based on local supply and demand. Here are some of the more surprising solar energy pros and cons that are worth considering when looking at this renewable energy resource.
What Are the Pros of Solar Energy?
1. It produces free energy once it has been installed.
This is a tremendous advantage to business owners and homeowners. Once the capital costs of solar energy have been paid off, the energy that can be produced by the system is virtually free. When compared to the ongoing costs of energy consumption through traditional methods, solar energy can often pay for itself over time. It is one of the few energy resources where the marginal cost of energy generation is at or near zero.
2. Solar energy systems have a long life span.
Instead of dealing with unpredictable energy prices, solar energy allows business owners and homeowners to lock-in a specific rate for years to come. The modern solar panel has a lifespan of at least 25 years, with many of the guaranteed or warrantied to last that long. This creates a cost of energy that is level compared to the open market, generating savings every month that it is operating.
3. It is a renewable resource that is truly renewable.
Solar energy is considered to be renewable because the sun is not expected to stop shining any time soon. Recent estimates show that our star will likely burn for at least another 6 billion years. And let’s face it – without the sun, our planet would struggle mightily to support life anyway.
4. Solar energy is a system of energy production that is environmentally friendly.
Solar panels are able to create energy without the need for combustion to be present. This means there are no ongoing emissions that are created when a solar energy system has been installed. It allows businesses and homeowners to be able to reduce their carbon footprint dramatically and immediately.
5. There are virtually no limitations on who can install a solar energy system.
Solar panels can create energy in virtually any environment. In areas that receive 300 days or more of sunlight every year, a solar energy system can produce nearly 5 kilowatt hours of power for every kilowatt of solar panels that have been installed. For an area that is more famous for rain, such as Seattle, the amount of kilowatt hours produced can be cut in half, but still viable.
6. It can produce profits for businesses and homeowners.
Solar energy can save people money once installed for sure. It can also make money for some businesses and homeowners. Thanks to various tax incentives, feed-in tariffs, and net metering, it is possible to sell excess electricity that is generated by a solar system to the local utility. This can result in bill credits, monthly payments, and other forms of compensation. When installed for the opportunity to produce profits, a solar energy system may be able to make up to $1,000 in the first year alone, including all installation costs.
7. Solar energy is a resource that can be shared.
Not every home or business is suitable for a solar energy system. Shading issues, spacing concerns, and other property-related problems can make it extremely difficult for a solar panel to be installed. Thanks to the levels of energy a modern solar panel can produce, it has become a resource that can be shared by multiple users. Shared resources can also reduce the initial capital costs of a solar system by up to 50% per household or business.
8. There is very little maintenance required for a solar energy system.
Solar panels have no moving parts when considering a standard rooftop installation. This means there is very little maintenance required in order to keep the system operational. No moving parts means that there isn’t the same level of noise pollution that other forms of renewable energy tend to generate, such as through a wind turbine of a hydropower dam.
9. Solar energy systems are very flexible.
Solar energy systems are typically installed on the roof of a building. Thanks to expanding technologies and the flexibility of panel design, any flat surface offers the potential for a system installation. As long as there is enough space for the panels, they can be configured in virtually any way so that they can fit into the space a property has so that an optimal amount of sunlight can be obtained.
10. It is a system that promotes true energy independence.
Many economies are affected by the fossil fuels industry. Countries like the United States import a number of fossil fuels, particularly crude oil, on a daily basis to the tune of millions of barrels. Although solar energy won’t fix this issue entirely since about 70% of the fossil fuels consumed in the US go into transportation networks, it is a technology that can promote real energy independence on an individualized level.
11. It has a minimal aesthetic impact.
Unlike other forms of renewable energy, solar energy makes a minimal aesthetic impact on the environment. Solar panels are often installed on existing structures, so they can often go unnoticed. Large wind turbines or large dams are very noticeable and can even change the surrounding environment, which is something solar panels do not do at all.
12. Sunlight is freely available.
You don’t have to worry about someone coming after you if your install solar panels at your business or home because you’re taking an energy resource. Sunlight shines down on all of us freely and without discrimination. There are no ownership claims on the sun that anyone can make.
What Are the Cons of Solar Energy?
1. Solar energy isn’t always available as a resource.
The sun only shines for a portion of the day. During the evening hours, a solar energy system is unable to produce power. This means a system that is 100% off the grid must have some sort of battery storage available to it. In the winter, especially in the upper north for the Northern Hemisphere, there may only be a 8-10 hours of available sunlight, which limits the amount of production a system can produce. Cloud cover, other forms of weather, and other environmental factors can also limit how much energy can be produce.
2. It has a high capital cost.
Solar energy has several incentives to urge an investment, but the high capital cost of installation for a system keeps many homeowners and businesses away from it. When tax incentives, subsidies, and other investment opportunities are included, the average installation is still going to cost between $15,000-$40,000. Not every business owner or homeowner has that kind of money available at the moment to get involved with solar energy. Some estimates place the cost of solar power generation at a rate that is 11 times higher than traditional fossil fuels, such as coal. It can be up to 5 times higher that nuclear or hydropower as well.
3. Energy storage also has a high capital cost.
Solar energy systems that tie into local utility systems without the need for storage can reduce, but not completely eliminate, receiving a power bill every month. Batteries and other forms of energy storage can smooth out the demand placed upon the system, but it is a technology that is quite expensive if you’re looking to be completely off the grid. Current pricing for a large storage battery system can be close to the price of the solar panels being installed ($15,000) and that will only provide about 3 days’ worth of power storage.
4. Solar energy doesn’t completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels.
When producing energy, solar panels produce zero emissions. It is the manufacturing process for those solar panels that requires a fossil fuels investment. Some of the most potent greenhouse gases are produced by the creation of solar panels. Australian research shows that a solar panel operating for 1.5 years can offset the emissions which are produced, but this means each panel is contributing more, not less, pollution to the environment as part of the initial capital cost.
5. Current technologies limit who can invest into solar power.
Solar cells can often require rare elements that are expensive to obtain. CIGS and CdTe solar panels tend to be the most efficient, but they are also the most expensive. This pushes the solar energy further out of reach for many business owners and homeowners. Semiconductor manufacturers need specific environments for the process to be completed as well, which adds to the final cost of each product.
6. It is difficult to move a solar energy installation once it has been put into place.
If you’re a business owner or homeowner considering solar energy, then the difficulties of moving such a system if you need to relocate must be considered. Solar panels can add value to a property, but that value might not offset the initial capital costs of the system. Any net metering agreements are property-specific as well, which means they may not go to your new location.
7. Solar energy systems require a specific amount of space.
For a solar energy system to be effective, it must be able to provide an adequate amount of power density. If a system has a density that is too low, then it won’t be able to produce enough power to meet the needs of that property. Not every property has enough space to create the required density, which means not every business or homeowner can enjoy the advantages of solar power right now.
8. Current solar energy technologies are generally inefficient.
The current standard for the best photovoltaic cells right now will only convert about 20% of the sunlight they receive into actual energy that can be used. This makes solar energy one of the most inefficient energy systems that exists right now. Investments and innovation into the industry are improving the PV ratings that are available, but it is still an issue that can make solar energy a difficult investment for some.
9. Solar energy changes our current power infrastructure.
Many of the technologies that are used in modern power grids are close to a full century in age. Thomas Edison helped to design many of the distribution systems that are still being used right now. This means we have an aging infrastructure for our power needs that struggles to integrate solar energy and other renewable resources into it. Having several solar installations on one utility has the potential to create grid instability, which can affect an entire community.
10. Low maintenance doesn’t mean “no” maintenance for solar panels.
In order for a solar panel to be able to collect energy from sunlight, it must be free of dust and debris. Clearing dust and debris can be a tedious process because scratches on the panel can reduce the efficiencies it is able to produce. In high wind areas, it may require daily cleaning of the panels to keep them operating at their full potential, which is a time investment some business owners or homeowners may not be able to make.
11. Many solar installations require a conventional source of power to be present in stand-by mode.
Because many solar installations only produce power during the day, they are dependent on a conventional source of power for the evening or a day that is dark and overcast. This means the amount of coal-fired energy can be reduced with the installation of a solar energy system, but it is not completely eliminated.
12. Altering our power grids to include renewable energy sources is incredibly expensive.
The power grid that an industrialized nation has is valued in the trillions of dollars. It takes about a year to manufacture a single transformer that a power grid will use. This means altering our power grids to include solar energy is a very expensive proposition. A 2008 effort to include wind energy to an aging grid cost nearly $7 billion and took more than 7 years to complete. This means it may be financially impossible to transport solar energy from its best collection places to the homes and businesses that need to use it.
These solar energy pros and cons show that there is a lot of potential in this type of renewable power. Because it is an emerging technology still, more than 40 years after it was first introduced to the US market, there are also many challenges which must still be overcome. One day we may need to look for alternatives to fossil fuels because of the condition of our planet. If we do, solar energy could be the lifesaver we need.