Solar Energy Pros and Cons

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We are becoming increasingly aware of our need for sustainable energy. Learning about this field can feel overwhelming due to factors such as changes in technology and misinformation. 

Is solar power all it’s cracked up to be? If you’re looking to make the switch to sustainable energy or are just interested to learn more about solar power, read on!

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    Advantages of Solar Energy

    There are many benefits to going solar, but two key benefits are its affordability and sustainability as an energy source. The fact that it is generated silently, provides reliable power, and is low-maintenance only add to the charms and practicality of solar power.

    Financial Advantages

    Solar energy sounds good in theory, but is it feasible to implement? Thanks to options that make it more affordable from the start, solar power can become a viable option for almost everyone. Technological innovations will only make solar energy cheaper.

    Virtually Free Energy

    Once you’ve made your initial investment in solar panels, you’ll no longer need to spend any money on electricity – and there’s even the possibility of selling excess energy to others. Solar energy ends up cheaper than fossil fuels once the investment has paid off, after which the marginal cost of energy generation is zero.

    Subsidizing Your Startup Cost

    Even better, many governments cut the price down further by subsidizing the cost of solar panels or providing grants and rebates. In 2020, the U.S. government’s Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) offers a direct tax credit of 26% to anyone who installs a solar system. This number is incrementally decreasing each year, however, before phasing out entirely in 2022.

    Payback Period

    Your financial savings is partially determined by the payback period, or how long it will take you to break even on what you’ve invested financially in your system. Thanks to the rising cost of fossil fuels and the decreased cost of equipment, the payback period has become much more favorable over the years. 

    The payback period for solar panels averages up to 5 years, depending on the type of panels you have and how much energy you’re using. Considering that most solar panels last for a good 25-30 years, this means years of savings well after you surpass the payback period!

    Community Solar

    Solar energy becomes even more affordable when people band together. It doesn’t always make sense to install solar panels on your property if you consume a small amount of energy, or aren’t planning on staying in the same house. Still, community solar initiatives offer you an alternative means to benefit from this clean technology. Community solar involves a group of people banding together to install solar panels on land and share the costs, which generally works out to a decreased investment for participants than for private solar power systems!

    Earning Rewards

    Many states and municipalities now offer net metering, which means that your home solar system can act as a mini power generation station. Any excess energy your system produces is sent into the local power grid, where others can use it. This leads to a reduced energy bill or similar incentive for your household.

    Solar is a Renewable Energy Source

    The sun has enough fuel to last for 5 billion years more, so there’s no danger of it running out any time soon– and, as long we have the sun, we can have solar power. In contrast, fossil fuels take thousands of years to form and are gone for good once we take them out of the ground.

    Solar Power is Abundant

    Solar power won’t just last for a long time- there’s also a vast amount of it. The sun can power 2,880 trillion light bulbs every single hour, which is equivalent to giving 7 billion people a light bulb for the rest of their lives. Even if the population continues to grow exponentially, solar power would be able to provide for everyone on the planet for a long time to come.

    Solar panels can then produce electricity for at least thirty years, and this number is likely to increase as technology improvements make solar panels longer-lasting.

    Minimal Environmental impact

    Harnessing solar power doesn’t cause any pollution. Some emissions are released when the equipment needed for solar energy is initially manufactured, as well as the transportation and installation of the panels. When you compare this with generating electricity from fossil fuels, the emissions are almost nothing. 

    Plus, the contamination starts and ends there. Once everything is in place, the energy is cleanly produced.

    Availability 

    You might assume that solar energy is only a viable solution in countries that experience constant sunlight, but this isn’t the case. Although the sunniest areas of the world can create the most power- especially nations located near the equator, solar energy is available everywhere, to some extent.

    Some countries with colder climates have been highly successful at harnessing energy from the sun. In Germany, solar power currently makes up around 6.6% of energy consumption, placing the nation fourth in the world for its solar capacity – even though it’s among the countries with the least sunshine hours in the globe.

    Since it can be harnessed virtually anywhere, solar energy can potentially provide consistent power to people around the world. Historically, this has not been the case with electricity and marks a considerable change, particularly in developing countries where access is an issue.

    Equitable Energy

    Even in developed nations, many people live in fuel poverty due to the cost of electricity. In developing nations, these struggles are even more pronounced. Although solar energy might seem expensive at first due to the cost of installation, it’s a lot more affordable than fossil fuels in the long run.

    Reliable, Silent, and Low-Maintenance

    Reliability

    As long as the sun produces the energy you need and none of the equipment gets damaged, there’s no reason you should experience a power shortage or cutoff.

    Evidence demonstrates solar panels are unlikely to fail, too. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, only five out of 10,000 solar panels installed between 2000 and 2015 failed. Plus, you’ll find that most manufacturers offer a warranty of 25 years or more – so, even if you happen to be an owner of the 0.05% of panels that do fail, you’ll be able to get a free replacement.

    No Noise Generated

    In most solar power systems, no moving parts are involved, which means they don’t generate noise. Considering noisier energy alternatives, such as wind turbines, the silence of solar energy production is a major selling point for some.

    Low-Maintenance

    A further advantage of solar power is the lack of maintenance needed. Solar energy is self-sustaining once the system has been installed, other than a minimal amount of regular cleaning, recommended at least twice a year.

    Disadvantages of Solar Energy

    Sounds great so far. Of course, nothing is without its limitations. Solar power’s benefits, ironically, can also be seen as its disadvantages- namely, cost and environmental impact. Let’s take a look at some common concerns folks have about solar power:

    Startup Cost

    Like we said earlier, there are currently some generous rebates and incentives to help you finance your solar project. Still, the initial cost is pretty high. Fortunately, there are financing options available, such as solar leasing and community solar, which can make the investment manageable for a broader range of household budgets. 

    Solar panels pay for themselves (see above to learn about the payback period), if you stay in your home long enough. Most panels last for around 20-30 years (the same length as their warranty), but if you move before the end of this period, you won’t get the full return for your investment.

    Another issue is that the battery technology needed to store solar energy is currently pretty costly. That will likely change in the future – companies like Tesla are innovating to make solar power cheaper – but for now, it’s a costly investment.

    Emissions During Production

    Solar energy is widely considered a clean, renewable energy source- especially when considering fossil fuels in comparison. Before installation, however, emissions are produced during manufacture, transport, and the initial mounting of solar panels.

    Some aspects of manufacturing solar panels and other equipment are linked with greenhouse gas emissions. This includes the release of toxic gases like nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride, which are much stronger and more dangerous than carbon dioxide.

    Some solar cells (different solar panels are made from different cells, depending on the material used) also require exotic or rare materials, which can be especially harmful when extracted from the earth’s habitat.

    Of course, solar energy is much less destructive and pollutive than fossil fuels. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that a full transition to green energy will likely require the use of less sustainable power sources in the short-term.

    Disposal of Solar Panel Waste 

    The amount of solar panels is steadily increasing worldwide. When looking at the pros and cons of solar power, we must, therefore, consider how panels are disposed of. 

    The cells within a panel contain cadmium and lead, which are both carcinogenic. The remaining parts that cannot be reused are glass, silicon, and the plastic that encases the solar cells themselves. Disposing of panels in the landfill risks the leaching out of these toxic substances, potentially poisoning water supplies and damaging the soil.

    Solar panels can currently be recycled with up to 96% efficiency, but this service is still costly. Recycling one standard 18-square-foot solar power module costs $15-20 to recycle, which makes it much more expensive than disposing of the panels via landfills (which is currently illegal in some states).

    Related Article: Solar panel waste: Could leasing be the answer?

    Recycling is such a costly process due to the extensive thermal and chemical treatments required to break the bonds within the cells, as well as the separate disposal of cadmium and lead. 

    The long lifespan of solar panels (25+ years) means that they are built for longevity. However, nothing lasts forever, so new technologies must emerge to dispose of them in the most environmentally-friendly way possible.

    Sunlight is Intermittent

    Let’s remember that the sun also sets, so at night time and on overcast days, access to sunlight will be limited or nonexistent. Thankfully, at night we tend to use less electricity anyhow. On average, electrical usage peaks mid-day, conveniently when earth receives peak sunlight. 

    Sunlight is an intermittent source of power, but thankfully energy storage systems have been developed to help make your solar power more consistently available. Solar storage has revolutionized home solar systems by reserving extra energy produced in a solar battery bank. At night time or during bad weather, your home will utilize this reserved solar energy. The cost is relatively high, but as this technology improves, solar batteries will inevitably become more affordable and even more technologically sophisticated than they already are.

    Requires Lots of Space

    In theory, the sun may supply enough light to power the world, but the logistics of such an operation are not as straightforward.

    Lots of space is needed to get a good amount of power from solar energy, which is why you often see solar panel farms that take up huge patches of field or desert. This is because solar power produces fewer watts per square meter than traditional sources of energy like oil, gas, and nuclear. The good news is that for home systems, the panels are typically installed on a roof rack, and can even be installed as a carport, which means no additional ground space is required.

    The Verdict: Solar Power is the Energy of the Future

    Solar energy has its pros and cons, and lots of research needs to be done to improve this technology before it can be relied on entirely.

    Nevertheless, it is evident that the continued use of fossil fuels is unsustainable. Although solar power has some disadvantages, they pale in comparison to the problems associated with energy from fossil fuels. Therefore, the focus should be on mitigating the negatives of solar energy rather than giving up on it completely. Looking forward, technology improvements and careful planning can achieve this goal as we work towards securing a more sustainable future.

    Ultimately, there is lots to consider when choosing what energy source will power your home. Take a look at your household’s energy needs, and speak with a local installer to find out more about whether solar power is the right choice for you!