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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy

As of 2020, the solar industry supplied roughly 4 million jobs

Monocrystalline solar cell efficiency rate has gone from 15% to 28% today

Heavy cloud reduces a solar panel's effectiveness by about 65%


We’re all familiar with the concept of solar energy by now.

This green energy source sounds like something out of a sci-fi film – harnessing the energy generated by the sun to power technology – but is very much real and is becoming more popular around the globe.

In fact, between 2008 and 2018, the installed capacity of off-grid solar photovoltaics (PV) has grown more than tenfold globally, from 0.25 gigawatts (GW) in 2008 to almost 3 GW in 2018 (IRENA, 2019).

Moving forward, experts are suggesting that solar energy will be a key tool in our fight against climate change – but what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Installing solar panels birds eye view

Advantages of solar energy

1. It’s a clean energy source

The biggest advantage of solar energy is that it’s a clean, green energy source that doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions whilst operating.

Solar panels absorb sunlight and transform it into electricity – they literally sit there and sunbathe whilst the technology does the hard work in the background. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, need to be burned to generate energy, which leads to toxic air pollution.

There are, however, some emissions created in the production of the panels themselves – but more on that later.

2. It’s infinite

The sun provides enough energy to power the world – and then some. In fact, 173,000 terawatts (TW) of solar energy strike the Earth at any given moment. In other words, the sun provides us with more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use in that time.

Solar energy can also be harnessed anywhere in the world, from the sandy Sahara plains to drizzly UK fields.

This reliable source of energy will also be available until the sun dies, which shouldn’t happen for another 5 million years. This means there’s literally an unlimited amount of solar energy for us to use, without having to harm the planet.

The same cannot be said for fossil fuels. Although most of the world currently relies on them, there's a finite amount left, since they take millions of years to form – and we're quickly running out

3. It’s free

Utilising the sun’s energy is completely free. It’s already there, and isn’t going away for millions of years, so why not make the most of it?

But, like most good things in life, there’s a catch. To get this free energy, people need to spend thousands of pounds on the equipment – the exact amount will depend on the size of the solar panel system, the type of panels, and the supplier.

4. It’s safe for local communities

Solar panels don’t emit any harmful chemicals whilst operating, which is a refreshing change from what we’re used to with other fuels, like coal, oil, gas, and nuclear.

After centuries of powering the world with fossil fuels, air pollution has reached toxic levels in some parts of the world, leading to higher levels of lung-related illnesses. For example, experts have found that people living close to an industrial complex have an increased risk of asthma, respiratory diseases, and hospitalisation for respiratory infection.

However, Noah Kittner, assistant professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, states that replacing fossil fuels with solar panels could actually reduce the chance of getting lung cancer.

Many governments are also pushing for nuclear energy as a low-carbon way of powering countries – but even this comes with its dangers. Although it’s rare, an uncontrolled nuclear reaction could result in widespread contamination of air and water – we only need to look at Chernobyl to see how things can go tragically wrong with nuclear energy.

5. It’s quickly evolving

The solar energy industry is evolving at a rapid rate, which means we’re able to harness more solar energy than ever before. For example, the monocrystalline silicon solar cell’s efficiency rate – the measurement of a panel's ability to convert sunlight into usable electricity – has gone from 15% in the 1950s to 28% today.

As for the future? Innovations in quantum physics and nanotechnology are predicted to double – or even triple – the electrical output of solar power systems.

Some of the most exciting solar panel developments in recent years include:

  • Perovskite solar panels – These are tandem solar cells (two solar cells stacked one on top of the other), which are created when a thin perovskite cell is placed on top of a standard silicon cell
  • Quantum dot solar panels – Quantum dots can squeeze out more energy from each photon (a type of particle that carries energy from the sun), meaning these panels are able to increase the maximum conversion efficiency of solar panels to about 66%
  • Zombie solar cells – This new type of solar cell can adapt to the amount of available light, meaning it will even be able to work indoors

6. No noise pollution

If you’ve ever been near a coal mine, oil rig, or wind turbine, you’ll know how noisy it can be to harness energy. This isn’t just annoying, but it can disrupt behavioural patterns in local wildlife. Noise pollution can even have negative impacts on some species’ reproduction rates.

Thankfully, harnessing solar energy is a silent process. This is because solar panels have no moving parts – they just stay put and absorb sunlight.

7. It provides green jobs

One of the major arguments against ditching fossil fuels is that millions of jobs will be lost. Whilst this is true, the solar energy industry will also generate a lot of new jobs – for a better cause too.

As of 2020, there were 12 million people employed in the global renewable energy industry – up from 11.5 million in 2019. The solar and wind sectors had the largest workforce out of all the renewable energy sectors, with roughly 4 million and 1.25 million jobs respectively.

There are plenty of different roles on offer in the solar energy sector, ranging from research and development to manufacturing and construction.

Solar farm in the UK

Disadvantages of solar energy

1. It’s expensive to set up 

Before anyone can start harnessing free solar energy, they need to set up the technology, which can be pretty expensive.

Solar panel owners need to fork out thousands of pounds to cover the cost of the panels themselves, the inverter, the wiring, and the installation. For context, the average cost for a solar panel system in a three-bedroom house is £4,800.

On top of this, people also need to consider whether they need a battery to store the energy. Solar batteries typically cost around £4,500, though the exact amount depends on their size, their brand, and the materials they’re made from.

Nevertheless, the price of solar is decreasing over time. In fact, the cost of solar panels fell by more than 80% since 2010.

2. Efficiency is impacted by weather conditions

Let’s get one thing straight – solar panels work when it’s rainy, snowy, and overcast. They just might not be as effective in these weather conditions. In fact, a recent study found that heavy cloud reduces a solar panel's effectiveness by about 65%.

And it makes sense when you think about it. The amount of electricity that panels can generate depends on how much sunlight they can absorb – and if any rain or cloud gets in the way of that sunlight, the panels won’t be able to absorb as much of it.

Storms are also likely to blow debris – such as leaves or sticks – onto the panels, which can reduce the efficiency and sometimes damage panels.

Surprisingly, solar panels also lose efficiency when it’s too hot – not ideal considering their sole purpose is to lie in the sun. The optimum temperature for solar panels to operate is a balmy 25°C.

3. It takes up a lot of space

Solar panels can cover a lot of surface area. After all, the more electricity you want to produce, the more solar panels you’ll need. You would need between six and eight acres to generate roughly 1 megawatt (MW) of energy.

However, some experts have argued that solar energy could power the Earth without taking up too much space. Mehran Moalem, professor at UC Berkeley, claimed that putting panels on only 1.2% of the Sahara desert could cover all of the world’s energy needs. But remember that this is just hypothetical – we don't have the infrastructure to send that amount of electricity from Africa to the rest of the world.

Some people have also raised the question of how these large swaths of solar farms would impact local wildlife and precious ecosystems. Thankfully, experts in the field have found ways to have the best of both worlds by placing solar panels on platforms or stilts. This way, we can harness solar energy whilst preserving local ecosystems.

4. It isn’t totally eco-friendly

Solar energy is completely green, right? Well yes, but the panels themselves aren’t totally environmentally friendly.

Overall, the carbon footprint of an average solar photovoltaic (PV) system is between 14-73 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilowatt-hour (kWh). However, studies have shown that PV systems can produce the equivalent amount of energy that was used to manufacture the systems within 1–4 years.

There are a few key reasons behind solar panels’ carbon footprint, including:

  • Hazardous materials used to create panels – The chemicals inside solar panels generally include copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium selenide, copper indium gallium selenide, hexafluoroethane, and polyvinyl fluoride – all materials that can be hazardous if they’re left to seep into landfill
  • Where panels are manufactured – A lot of electricity is needed to create solar panels, and depending on where they’re manufactured, the amount of fossil fuels in the electricity mix will fluctuate. For example, the UK’s energy mix was 2.9% coal in 2020, whilst 64% of China’s electricity generation came from coal
  • How far panels need to be shipped from – A large portion of the global stock of solar panels are manufactured in China, which means they will have to be shipped or flown around the world to reach local suppliers
  • How panels are disposed of – It’s predicted that there could be 9.57 million tonnes of solar waste by 2050. To reduce this waste, solar panel owners should recycle the panel at the end of its life to make sure the precious metals are reused

Summary 

Like many things in life, there are both pros and cons to solar energy. However, it’s clear to us that the advantages of solar energy heavily outweigh the disadvantages. And as the world continues to find cleaner ways to power our growing energy demands, solar energy is sure to be on the front line.

Want the really good news? You can benefit from solar energy at home. Installing a set of solar panels onto your property’s roof will mean you can reduce your energy bills whilst also doing your bit to help the planet.

Want to find the perfect set of solar panels for your home? Use our free comparison tool to speed up the process. All you have to do is answer a few simple questions about your property, and our suppliers will be in touch with free quotes for you to compare.

Beth Howell Writer

Beth has a real passion for green living. She’s been absorbed in eco research for over three years, and has become quite the expert. Whether you’re after a new set of solar panels, a home energy improvement, or you want to catch the latest eco news, she’s got your back.

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