10 Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy

As the burning of fossil fuels continues to accelerate climate change, renewable energy sources are more important than ever. Solar energy is energy from the sun that gets converted into electrical or thermal energy. It can be used for tasks like heating water, powering electricity in homes and businesses, and more. It’s not without downsides, however. This article will examine 10 advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.

Advantages of solar energy

Humans have used solar energy in some form for thousands of years, and as technology improves, its advantages are becoming even more obvious.

The advantages of solar energy include its reliability, affordability, greenness, job creation, and ability to make nations energy independent.

Here are the pros:

#1. Solar energy is reliable

Power grids supported by renewables like solar energy do very well. The “System Average Interruption Duration Index” (SAIDI) is the most common indicator for grid reliability. This system looks at the average power outage duration customers experience in a year. Germany, which uses renewables like solar for almost half of its electricity, has the most reliable grid in the world. What about solar on its own? A study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) looked at 54,500 solar panels placed between 2000 and 2015. Each year, only 5 out of 10,000 failed, which means solar panels are extremely reliable.

Some might ask why solar is reliable if the sun isn’t always shining. There are a few ways solar panels address this, such as net metering. This is a law that requires utilities to give credits to people who export their extra solar power to the grid. Solar energy can also be used to charge batteries during the day. At night, when the sun sets, you can then use those batteries to power what you need.

#2. Solar energy is affordable

Cost has always been a concern with renewables, but solar energy has gotten more affordable over the years. According to the 2020 International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, the technology for solar energy is cheaper than coal and gas in most countries. There’s uncertainty because of factors like COVID, but the IEA’s main scenario predicts more solar output by 2040 thanks to solar power being 20-50% more affordable compared to 2019’s outlook.

This reflects a pattern. Not long ago, solar energy was the most expensive option for countries wanting to invest in renewables. The cost has since dropped by 90% thanks to technological advances. Also, it’s free to use sunshine, while plants powered by fossil fuels need to buy those fossil fuels first.

#3. Solar energy reduces greenhouse emission

Solar energy is a valuable energy source because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels. This is because of how it works. Let’s look at a solar panel. When the sun shines on a solar panel, the photons (which are particles of light) sever electrons from their atoms. This creates a flow of electricity. No fossil fuels burn in the process and the greenhouse gas emissions that are released are, as Investopedia puts it, “inconsequential.” Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells also don’t need to use water.

What about manufacturing? According to a study in Nature Energy, which measured the greenhouse gases produced by various electricity sources up to 2050, solar, wind, and nuclear power had a much smaller carbon footprint compared to coal or gas. This accounted for emissions released during fuel supply, construction, and manufacturing.

#4. Solar energy creates job

Solar energy is a reliable, affordable, and green energy source, but the industry also creates jobs. According to a report on clean energy employment in 2020, there were 12 million jobs in renewable energy compared to 11.5 million in 2019. A third came from solar power. Considering how disruptive COVID was, these are impressive numbers. Specific jobs in solar are expected to increase, too. For solar photovoltaic installers, employment is projected to rise 52.1% between 2020 and 2030. The average salary is $47,670.

Other solar energy jobs include semiconductor processors, welders, cutters, glaziers, electrical repairers, industrial production managers, and more. The industry also needs professionals like real estate brokers, civil engineers, construction laborers, chemists, and physicists.

#5. Solar energy can help nations achieve energy independence

When nations depend on others for energy, disruptions like war threaten energy security. Russia is a key example as the world’s largest exporter of oil and second-largest exporter of crude oil. In early autumn, energy prices skyrocketed in Germany when Russia cut off a natural gas pipeline to the country. This move is believed to be revenge for the sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. Because energy networks depend on each other, Germany wasn’t the only place affected.

Experts agree that renewables like solar are the best way to reach energy independence. No country should rely entirely on one source, however, so solar should be combined with renewables like wind. The old saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applies.

Disadvantages of solar energy

Solar energy is an exciting field with many benefits, but there are important downsides to consider. Understanding the disadvantages drives innovation and helps countries make smart decisions.

The disadvantages of solar energy include the consequences of changing climate, land use, material scarcity, convenience, and waste.

Here are the cons:

#1. Climate change threatens solar energy

We’ve figured out how to use solar energy even when the sun goes down, but climate change could threaten the sunny days needed to get the energy. According to recent findings, climate change could disrupt areas perfect for harvesting solar energy. Higher surface temperatures, which lead to more cloudy days, could make places like the Middle East and the American Southwest less effective for solar energy.

People shouldn’t throw up their hands in defeat. As climate change continues, some models show more solar radiation. This could mean that while certain places become less ideal for solar energy, others will become better. Predictions are hard, so researchers will keep studying.

#2. Solar energy needs land

Relying more on solar energy means we’ll need more land. Many worry about the effects of building solar plants, like habitat loss, loss of biodiversity, and land degradation. As more countries turn to solar, they’ll want to build in the best places. This type of land grab can have major consequences for local communities and wildlife.

How much land are we talking about? Solar panels can be put on existing structures like houses, but larger systems could use as much as 4-16.5 acres per megawatt. To give a more concrete example, a solar power plant able to power 1,000 homes needs about 32 acres of land. If solar were to power all the United States’ energy needs, that would require 19 million acres. When considering solar energy, the amount of land it needs is definitely a downside.

#3. The materials needed for solar energy can be hard to get

Sunshine may be free, but the materials needed for solar technology certainly aren’t. PV technology (this is what solar panels use) uses rare materials. As solar energy increases, we’ll need more and more of these materials, many of which are byproducts of certain processes as opposed to materials pulled out of the earth.

We’re already seeing some issues. When COVID-19 hit, the price of polysilicon, which is a key material used in many solar cells, increased significantly as most of it was made in China. Even without COVID as a factor, the surge in demand has made it harder to get polysilicon and solar glass. There’s also been a semiconductor chip shortage, which gamers experienced when trying to buy Sony’s Playstation 5.

#4. Solar energy isn’t convenient for many individuals

Many people want to play their part in moving to renewables, but solar energy isn’t the most convenient option. For one, it’s expensive to put solar panels on your house. There may be solar financing options and rebates, but not everyone qualifies. According to Consumer Affairs, it costs Americans an average of $12,000 (after federal tax incentives) to install solar panels. The Tier 1 solar panel system can cost $40,000+. Most people can’t afford these upfront costs.

If cost isn’t the issue, solar panels don’t even work for every kind of roof. They need to attach to a mounting system, which makes installation harder for older homes. Skylights, roof decks, and other features can also make solar panels challenging. There are alternatives like ground-mounted solar panels, but barriers to widespread adoption remain.

#5. Discarded solar panels create waste

Solar energy’s last downside is what happens to the solar panels when they’re dead. And there will be a lot of dead solar panels. It’s estimated that by 2050, the United States will be dealing with up to 10 million tons of solar panel waste. This could be a big problem as panels contain toxic materials like lead and cadmium. When dumped in landfills, the materials could cause environmental damage. There are local regulations that dispose of solar panels as hazardous waste, but isn’t there something else we can do with the panels?

Recycling should be the answer, but it’s currently a tricky, pricey process. While it takes $15-$45 to recycle a silicon PV panel in the US, it only costs $1-$5 to just send it to a landfill. Less than 10% of dead solar panels end up recycled. This doesn’t only pose a risk to human and environmental health, but it’s a waste of money. The materials in decommissioned solar panels could be worth $2 billion by 2050. To address this disadvantage, we need better technologies that lower the price of recycling and make it more effective.

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