Solar Energy: An Overview

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 though prices have been declining. However, after considering the pros and cons along with the expectation that prices will continue to decline, the future of solar energy is looking rather bright.

The pros of solar energy include that it is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and has a low impact on the environment and the potential for any country to produce it. The cons are that it only produces energy when the sun is shining, needs a significant amount of land, and that certain solar technologies require rare materials.

Key Takeaways

  • Solar energy is becoming an increasingly cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels.
  • Solar energy is a sustainable energy source, has a low environmental impact, and promotes energy independence.
  • On the other hand, it is limited by how long the sun is out, may cause a scarcity of materials, and contains hazardous materials similar to electronics.
  • Pricey disadvantages of solar energy may be rendered negligible by technological advances that increase efficiency and storage capacity.
  • Increasing the incentives for the development of solar energy may be worthwhile.

The Advantages of Solar Energy

Sustainability

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.

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.

Solar energy technology is becoming an increasingly cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels, though it remains somewhat expensive in certain markets.

Energy Independence

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.

The Disadvantages of Solar Energy

Intermittency

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. As the global capacity for solar power continues to rise, nations like Japan and other global leaders in solar energy technology are focusing on developing adequate energy storage to deal with this issue.

Land Use

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.

An Environmental Downside

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 source, 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 make it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels.

More sustainable than fossil fuels
  • Lower impact on environment

  • Helps countries become more energy independent

  • Cost-effective

Interruptions in supply
  • Occupies large amount of land

  • Technology not yet widely available

  • Can still create some harm to environment

173,000

The approximate number of terawatts of solar energy that shine on the Earth each day—10,000 times the daily global energy use.

Solar Energy Examples

The largest solar energy plant in the entire world is located in Rajasthan, India. The Bhadla Solar Park, which was completed in April 2020, boasts some impressive statistics. The plant occupies 10,000 acres and has an installed capacity of 2,245 megawatts. The total investment in the project is estimated to be around $1.4 billion.

The largest solar park in the United States is known as the Solar Star park near Rosamond, California. The power station consists of two separate installations named Solar Star-1 and Solar Star-2, with respective capacities of 314MW and 265MW. Like the plant in India, the location was selected due to its large exposure to the sun and minimal rain.

Solar Energy vs. Wind Energy

Both wind and solar energy are two of the fastest-growing sources of renewable energy. Both energy sources help to cut down pollution and offer alternatives to fossil fuels, however, there are notable differences between the two.

The turbines that power wind energy are less harmful to the environment than solar panels. Furthermore, they produce more electricity than solar panels and can be installed offshore. Unlike solar, wind energy can be harnessed both day and night. However, wind is an unpredictable energy source. Turbines are also quite noisy, and, like solar panels, require a lot of land space thus don't make sense for densely populated areas.

Ultimately, solar panels are the more powerful and predictable source of energy. They require less space, are less noisy, and can be installed on rooftops, etc. in densely populated areas.

Pros and Cons of Solar Energy FAQs

What Are the Pros and Cons of Using Solar Energy for Your Home?

Using solar energy for your home will save you money, increase your home value, help you become energy independent, and will decrease your carbon footprint. However, the large solar panels may alienate potential buyers. Furthermore, some HOA agreements may not allow you to install solar panels on your home.

Do Solar Panels Increase Your Property Taxes?

Because installing solar panels increase the value of your home, they can also increase your property taxes. However, many states offer exemptions for residents. Check your county clerk's website for the most accurate, up-to-date information.

Can You Still Have a High Electric Bill With Solar Panels?

In nearly every case, installing solar panels will lower your monthly electric bill.

Are There Tax Benefits for Solar Panels?

Yes. The federal solar investment tax credit, enacted in 2006, provides a 26% tax credit for solar panels installed on residential and commercial properties.