With the growing threat of climate change due to the excessive release of carbon emissions, many nations are looking to clean energy alternatives to replace traditional fossil fuels. Of all the clean energy alternatives, solar has arguably been the most expensive. However, after considering the pros and cons along with the 80% drop in solar panel prices over the last five years, the future of solar energy is looking rather bright.
The advantage of solar energy is that it is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. While fossil fuels have an expiration date that may be fast approaching, the sun is likely to be around for at least a few billion years. Additionally, 73,000 terawatts of solar energy shine down on the Earth’s surface every day, which is 10,000 times the daily global energy use. That’s an enormous supply just waiting for the technology that can harness it.
Low Environmental Impact
Solar energy has a substantially reduced impact on the environment compared to fossil fuels. Its greenhouse gas emissions are inconsequential as the technology does not require any fuel combustion. Also, although concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) are comparatively inefficient in their water usage depending on the type of technology being used, the right technology significantly increases efficiency while photovoltaic (PV) solar cells do not require any water when generating electricity.
The one environmental downside to solar technology is that it contains many of the same hazardous materials as electronics. As solar becomes a more popular energy, the problem of disposing the hazardous waste becomes an additional challenge. However, assuming the challenge of proper disposal is met, the reduced greenhouse gas emissions that solar energy offers makes it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels.
Since the sun shines across the globe, it makes every country a potential energy producer, thus allowing for greater energy independence and security. Solar energy doesn’t only promise to bring security and independence at the national level; solar panels can be installed on individual homes, providing power that does not depend on being connected to a larger electrical grid.
One of the biggest problems that solar energy technology poses is that energy is only generated while the sun is shining. That means nighttime and overcast days can interrupt the supply. The shortage created by this interruption would not be a problem if there were low-cost ways of storing energy as extremely sunny periods can actually generate excess capacity. In fact, Germany – a leader in solar energy technology – is now focusing on developing adequate energy storage to deal with this issue.
Another concern is that solar energy may take up a significant amount of land and cause land degradation or habitat loss for wildlife. While solar PV systems can be fixed to already existing structures, larger utility-scale PV systems may require up to 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt and CSP facilities require anywhere from 4 to 16.5 acres per megawatt. However, the impact can be reduced by placing facilities in low-quality areas or along existing transportation and transmission corridors.
Scarcity of Materials
Certain solar technologies require rare materials in their production. This, however, is primarily a problem for PV technology rather than CSP technology. Also, it is not so much a lack of known reserves as much as it is the inability of current production to meet future demand: many of the rare materials are byproducts of other processes rather than the focus of targeted mining efforts. Recycling PV material and advances in nanotechnology that increase solar cell efficiency could both help boost supply, but perhaps finding material substitutes that exist in greater abundance could play a role.
The Bottom Line
While solar energy technology has some disadvantages that make it somewhat expensive in certain markets, it is becoming an increasingly cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels. The cons that add to the cost of solar energy could be rendered negligible by further technological advances that increase efficiency and storage capacity. Considering the enormous potential gains of harnessing the sun’s light and heat, it may be worth increasing the incentives for furthering the development of solar energy.