We have already examined the many benefits of solar power. We know that there is a very good reason to move away from fossil fuels and that it makes sense to use the energy source that is all around us. But there are also some very real disadvantages to using solar energy too. This cannot be denied. Even the most fervent supporter of solar power will admit that it has a number of drawbacks that can be used in a strong case arguing against its use.
Listed below are arguments against solar power. They are either real or perceived problems and in most cases we have also included measures that have been taken to overcome these problems. There is little doubt that technology is continuing to improve and these new innovations are gradually reducing the disadvantages of relying on solar power as a viable energy source.
We will break down the disadvantages by the scale of solar power production because they each have their own specific obstacles. First we will look at commercial scale solar power projects and then residential solar power production.
Disadvantages of Commercial Scale Solar Power
Non-guarantee of continuous power. One of the big factors holding back the use of solar power as a reliable source of power is the fact that it is not a guaranteed continuous source of energy. Even though there is plenty of sunlight available somewhere in the world, there are times when it is cloudy or night time.
The ability of an electric grid to function properly depends on the supply of power that will meet demand. Voltage fluctuations can result in problems with the grid which causes grid instability.
This problem can be overcome but it is dependent on the growth of another related industry, that of energy storage. The growth of the solar industry has reached the point where the creation of large-scale batteries is becoming an economically viable option.
Fortunately, the cost of battery options such as lithium ion battery packs is continuing to drop as technology improves. And there are other options being explored such as vanadium redox flow batteries and compressed air energy storage.
Manufacturing cost. The cost of making solar panels is still quite high, even though the price has been gradually falling as the technology matures. Buying enough solar panels to power your home is going to require some serious thought. Will you get your money back in reduced power bills?
But there is another question that must be asked. Will the solar panel save enough energy to cover the energy spent in its manufacture? According to studies you can expect to recover the cost of the manufacture of a solar panel in less than 3 years. That same solar panel will go on producing more energy for many years (up to 30 years) after that.
So even though there is an up-front cost to making solar panels, there is a pay-off in the long run. Ultimately it is worth the investment both at an individual and a global level.
Space requirements. The space required to create a utility scale solar power plant is quite large. No matter whether the power plant is based on photovoltaic panels or concentrating solar troughs, there will be a requirement for large tracts of land to be available. The BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar Power Project displayed to the left is an example of the vast amount of land required by some projects to produce electricity.
This will then draw in a raft of other potential problems such as environmental concerns, aesthetic problems with nearby residents and the suitability of the site itself which may be better used for other purposes.
Still a developing technology. This is seen as a disadvantage of solar energy because there are many inefficiencies involved with the production of solar power today. It is still more expensive than it should be and the technology that is currently being used can be greatly improved upon.
This should only be seen as a short term disadvantage and as improvements are made in the industry the current problems will be overcome. In the meantime it is important that everyone continues to find out as much about the generation of solar power so that the most informed decision possible may be made.
On a commercial level there is still a lot to be learned about the impact that large-scale solar power projects have on the environment. This includes the wildlife whose habitat is being used as well as the effect on the land and water supply.
Danger to migratory birds. The construction of large solar tower systems involves huge arrays of reflecting mirrors that create intense heat. The heat from these mirrors can severely damage the feathers of any bird that happens to fly though the rays. The image to the right comes from a story run by USA Today and shows a Northern rough-winged swallow found at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating plant.
The potential for bird death is only recently being realised and as more large-scale solar power plants are built there is a chance that more birds will be endangered.
An example of the fears that were voiced over the danger to birds is highlighted by the coverage of the carcass of a Yuma clapper rail, a federally endangered marsh bird, that was found at the Desert Sunlight photovoltaic plant in May, 2013. Although it may or may not have been caused by the power project, the possibility that it had something to do with the death created adverse publicity for the project, prompted additional studies to be undertaken and ultimately added to the cost of the project.
Now, we’ve got to be a little careful and not get too hysterical over the deaths of a few birds. Every year thousands of birds are killed flying into building and windows. The fact that a few dead birds have been found in the vicinity of solar projects should not immediately condemn the projects to the scrapheap.
Lower absolute capacity compared to conventional power generation.
Disadvantages of Residential Solar Power
Siting requirements. In order to make the most of a solar panel installation on the roof of your home it is necessary to have a roof that is appropriate for the job. It must have the correct aspect in relation to the sun and it should be clear of obstructions such as overhanging tree branches which might block the sun’s rays.
If you live in an area that is not blessed with long periods of sunlight it may not be worth the cost of buying solar panels. Long foggy periods or days that are mostly cloudy will result in lower than average electricity production. This will mean that more panels than normal will be required to produce enough electricity for your home or you will have to supplement a higher proportion with power from the grid.
There is not really a lot you can do if you live in a part of the world that doesn’t get a lot of sunlight during the day. Similarly, if your house is thrown into shadow by the surrounding landscape your window for producing solar-based electricity is going to be severely limited.
Pollution in solar panel manufacture. One of the concerns that many environmentalists have voiced is the pollution that is caused during the production of solar panels. The manufacture of photovoltaic cells uses potentially toxic metals like lead, mercury and cadmium which can have a devastating impact if released into the environment. The presumption that we have to make is that manufacturers are working responsibly and are disposing of the heavy metal waste responsibly.
A study that was conducted over the pollution produced by the manufacture of photovoltaic cells found that even when accounting for the energy required to make them and the waste that is produced, there is still a 90 per cent cut in air pollution compared to using fossil fuels.
Expensive compared to fossil fuel-based power. When looking at it from a short-term basis, the cost of electricity generated from fossil fuel is far cheaper than the cost of solar-based electricity. But it should be the long-term view that we focus on. The long-term cost to the environment as well as the long-term actual cost will be cheaper than using coal or gas to produce our electricity.
As more and more people switch to solar power, and that includes sticking solar panels on the roof of your home or buying commercially produced solar power, the cost will come down. The gap between traditional fossil-fueled electricity and renewable energy is closing.
Although it appears that there is a vast number of disadvantages of using solar energy, the reality is that the technology is improving all the time. Storage capabilities and the manufacture of more efficient photovoltaic cells is overcoming some of the larger and more pressing drawbacks of using the energy source.
The cost of solar energy continues to fall so the difference between the cost of electricity from traditional fossil fuels and solar is diminishing.
The key is the identification of each disadvantage as early as possible and then work towards reducing its effect or eliminating it altogether.