You’ve probably heard a lot about solar energy – the pros, the cons and perhaps a lot in between. Much of the information dispensed comes from those with political agendas. Which means what you hear in the media is not balanced. But you as the average person, what are the facts? What truly are the pros and cons of solar energy?
First things first. We’re not going to look at this from an industry standpoint. Tech specs that need explanations are not going to help you – a person not in the industry – see what the pros and cons of solar energy are.
In order to clearly understand the pros and cons of solar energy, we’re going to approach this by answering the following questions:
- Is solar energy unlimited?
- Is solar energy clean?
- Can solar energy be used as the sole source of power?
- Are solar panels expensive?
Unlike other websites that display a discreet list of pros and cons for solar energy, we’re going to discuss both using our question outline laid out above. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re at least passively interested in solar energy/solar panels. Our goal is to demystify some of the things related to solar energy.
Let’s get started!
Is Solar Energy Unlimited?
The answer to this question is not necessarily what you might think. The immediate answer is Yes! After all, the sun is a big ball of energy that isn’t running out of fuel in the next 5 billion years. That sounds like a major pro for solar energy.
While it’s true that the sun will burn brightly for generations to come, what is also true is that it only shines on any given part of the earth for specific periods of time. That means there will be times that solar energy will not be available. That’s a con.
Since solar energy isn’t completely reliable in this context, does that mean that solar energy is not worthy of consideration? That would be a mistake. We’ll expand on this more in the section “Can solar energy be used as the sole source of power?”
So, from the standpoint of availability (as opposed to the availability of fossil fuels), yes, solar energy is unlimited.
Is Solar Energy Clean?
One of the biggest pushes for solar energy is the fact that there are zero emissions. Fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide when producing energy. The release of these emissions has been linked to the depletion of the ozone layer. This contributes to the greenhouse effect that is responsible for rising sea levels and increases in cancer rates. That’s a huge con for fossil fuels. And thus the push for renewable energy, including solar energy.
Sounds like a slam dunk for solar, doesn’t it? To answer that, we need to dive deeper into where greenhouse gas emissions come from.
First thing that comes to mind are vehicles. That’s why there’s such a strong push for electric vehicles. With the millions of vehicles on the road, it’s easy to blame them for environmental problems. The truth, however, is more personal than you might think.
According to the EPA, the numbers break down like this:
- Transportation – 28.5% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Electricity Production – 28.4% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Industry – 22% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Commercial & Residential – 11% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Agriculture – 9
%of greenhouse gas emissions
- Land Use & Forestry – 11% of greenhouse gas emissions
As you can see, transportation is at the top of the list. But look at #2. Just 0.1% lower than transportation is electricity production. Why is this significant? Let’s let the EPA explain:
“Electricity production generates the second largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 68 percent of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.”Source: U.S Environmental Protection Agency
Notice that “68 percent of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels”. This means all of us contribute to the greenhouse effect simply by watching television, using cell phones, tablets and computers. Even simple tasks such as turning on the light to go to the bathroom contributes to the problem.
Since we “seem” to have gone off track, let bring it back in. Between electricity production and commercial/residential use, 39% of greenhouse gas comes from activities we perform while in our house or apartment. If solar energy were used, that would bring those numbers way down.
Does That Mean There Are No Emissions Using Solar Panels?
Again, this is a loaded question. Using solar panels would absolutely drop those greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a major pro for solar energy. Pull back the covers, however, and a darker story emerges.
We said we weren’t going to get all technical. We’ll keep our promise. We won’t get too technical.
Solar panels are a great alternative to fossil fuels. There are zero emissions to use solar panels at a home or business. Unlike fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gas in order to generate electricity, solar panels are completely emissionless. The problem surfaces in the production of solar panels.
In addition to silicon used to make the panels, other materials are required including the wiring, metal casing and other materials. This results in the production of toxic waste which harms the environment, just in a different manner than fossil fuels.
What we’ve described are traditional methods of producing solar panels. The industry recognizes this. They’re aware that this drawback is what opponents of solar energy present as a con.
The good news is that new methods of production and new types of solar panels are on the horizon (and some are already here).
After considering the evidence, the answer to the question: “Is solar energy clean?” depends on your point of view. Assuming you’re coming from the angle of zero negative byproducts, then no, solar panel production does not fit the criteria.
If your concern is the reduction of fossil fuel emission for everyday living such as electricity production, then yes, solar energy is clean. Chalk one up in the pro column for solar energy.
Can Solar Energy Be Used As the Sole Source of Power?
As we stated earlier, the sun isn’t going anywhere for many generations to come. We also acknowledged that the sun doesn’t shine in the same spot everywhere all day (save the polar regions during those times of the year).
Subsequently, as long as the sun is shining (and not blocked by cloud cover), you could potentially power your home by the sun. When the sun goes down or the cloud cover is thick is when problems start to arise.
Opponents to solar energy point this out as a con. And on the surface it is. But what if you could store that energy collected from the sun on those bright days to use for a rainy day (pun intended)? That would mean electricity could flow no matter the time of day.
This is accomplished by solar capacitors. That is to say, it’s a fancy way of saying “rechargeable batteries”. One that has received a lot of attention is the Tesla Powerwall. They’re stylish, multiple Powerwalls can be purchased to satisfy you needs and will work even if there is a power outage.
This is a pro for solar energy. The reality is that the average person can’t afford enough solar panels and Powerwalls to be completely free of the electric company.
The good news is you don’t have to. Just installing the necessary number of solar panels and even just one Powerwall can reduce your electric bill. And depending on your monthly electricity usage, the electric company might end up paying you!
Are Solar Panels Expensive?
The short answer to that question is Yes. That’s a con. But there are avenues that can reverse it to a solar energy pro.
There are a number of ways to finance solar panels. From leasing to financing, there are a number of alternatives to paying cash for solar panels. And with net metering, you might be able to recoup some of the cost of ownership of solar panels.
As you can see, there’s more to the discussion of the pros and cons of solar energy. It’s true, there are some drawbacks such as the waste created from the production of solar panels. But look at it this way: At one point in history, automobiles killed people for a number of reasons. Advances in technology reduced those numbers – anti-lock brakes, airbags, lane keep assist, etc.
The point? As technology improves, the negative effects of solar panel production will be mitigated by newer technologies.
Another pro for solar energy is that the sun will remain in the sky for the indefinite future. Fossil fuels will run out. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. So in that respect, solar energy is unlimited. And while it is true that solar panel production currently does generate some toxic emissions, once they are created, no more bad things are produced in the production of electricity.