Pros and Cons of Solar Energy

There is a growing trend in our global society to look towards renewable energy sources to increase our energy security by diversifying away from conventional fossil sources.

There are great benefits to all of the renewable technologies—biomass, wind, wave, and solar to name a few—including free or cheap fuel sources, few or no emissions, and positive environmental impacts.

One of the problems with the variety of power options is that many people are still unsure as to which technology is appropriate to their project.  This article will explore solar in particular as an option.

Pros of Solar Energy

Solar Energy is Universal – Not everyone has access to biomass, geothermal, or wind, but the sun shines everywhere.

Solar Energy is Flexible – You can install on rooftops, walls, or open ground.  Solar panels can be also be implemented as architectural features such as awnings, carports, or even building integrated as windows and skylights.

Solar Energy is Scalable – Systems can be as small as a single panel for operating lights or gates.  Add a few more panels for a car charging station.  Add more modules and power a building.  Add more and you can have utility scale installations.  At each scale of installation similar materials, methods, and equipment are used.

Solar Energy is Long Lasting – Most solar panels carry power warranties of 25 years, with some manufacturers warranting up to 30 years.  Accelerated lab testing is showing lifespans of modules decades longer than their warranties.

Solar Energy is Low Maintenance – The operating and maintenance costs for solar energy are very low.  Maintenance is usually as little as cleaning the panels, and monitoring production of the system.

Solar Energy is Low Impact – The energy cost of manufacturing a solar module, the “embodied energy”, is low.  The energy produced by a solar panel in the first 1-6 years more than offsets the energy used to manufacture the panel.  With a lifespan of decades, that means a lot of renewable energy generated without additional emissions.

Solar Energy is a Safe Investment – Because the fuel source (the sun) is free, and the long term performance of the system can be predicted with relative accuracy, the return on investment on a solar array can easily be calculated.  Investing in solar is often compared investing in secure instruments such as bonds and CDs, although at today’s interest rates solar can often offer a higher return.

Cons of Solar Energy

Cost – The upfront cost of solar is still a barrier to widespread adoption.  There are a host of solar incentives available to take the bite out of adopting solar energy.  There are also different financing vehicles such as low interest loans, Power Purchase Agreements and Solar Leases that can all but eliminate the upfront cost.

Dependence on Subsidies – Every energy source we use enjoys subsidies in many different forms, and solar energy is no different.  The biggest difference is that subsidies for renewable energy tend to be more fickle making it difficult for long term development of the solar market.

Onerous Regulations – Many utilities, cities, counties, and states have not had the time or money to research solar technologies and the impacts of these technologies on their jurisdictions.  Often times, these authorities lean toward developing overly restrictive regulations when dealing with the unknown.  Poorly written regulations can increase costs and drag out project delivery time that can kill many otherwise viable installations.  Luckily there are a lot of smart people working to educate, streamline, and standardize processes for authorities to adopt.

Reinventing the Wheel – Most innovation in the solar industry is not in the manufacturing of the panels but in the components to mount, install, and integrate the systems with existing infrastructure.  Because there is such a variety of solutions, and not every technology is appropriate to the application, many design professions are left to reinvent the wheel for each project or do large amounts of research to approve substitutes.  Again, the continued development of standards and continuing education will solve this problem over time.

To insure energy security, many technologies need to be considered.  Because of the vast benefits and low risk of adopting solar energy as a generation source, we’ll be seeing a lot more of this technology in the field.