Solar energy: advantages and disadvantages

The advantages and disadvantages of solar energy refers to the benefits and risks of using technologies to capture and use light energy from the sun.

Of all the solar energy that reaches Earth:

  • 43% is used to heat the atmosphere and the ground;
  • 35% are returned to space when reflected on Earth;
  • 22% is used in the water cycle: evaporation, precipitation and condensation;
  • 0.2% is used in the generation of wind; and
  • 0.02% is used by plants in the photosynthesis process.
Solar energyAdvantageDisadvantages
For society
  • Use of urban space.
  • Low maintenance cost.
  • Diversity of applications.
  • Technological development
  • High initial investment cost.
  • Requires storage systems (batteries).
  • Low energy production efficiency.
  • Lack of information and technical support.
For the enviroment
  • Alternative energy.
  • Renewable energy.
  • Low emission of greenhouse gases
  • It depends on the weather.
  • Variability of sunlight.
  • Affected by air pollution.
For the planet
  • Taking advantage of desert regions.
  • Worldwide availability.
  • Access in secluded sites.
  • Large tracts of land for large-scale production.
  • Disposal and recycling of toxic materials.
  • Ideal production sites (deserts) far from populated centers.

Solar energy: advantages

1. Renewable energy source

The energy from the sun is limitless in practical terms.

2. Energy alternative

Solar panels (photovoltaic systems) can be used in homes, industries and other facilities, thereby reducing dependence on energy from fossil fuels.

3. Diversity of applications

We can use solar energy for different purposes:

  • To generate electricity: through photovoltaic systems (solar panels).
  • To generate heat: through thermal systems, solar energy is used to heat water and facilities.

Applications depend on the technology involved.

4. Use of urban space

The installation of photovoltaic or thermal systems can be carried out on urban constructions, roofs of buildings and houses, with which this space is used for the generation of electrical and / or thermal energy.

5. Low maintenance cost

The maintenance of solar energy collector systems is low once installed.

6. Technological development

The technological development of the solar energy industry is constantly advancing. One of the aspects to be improved is the manufacture of photovoltaic cells that are more economically attractive, more durable and more efficient.

7. Use of desert regions

Deserts are considered insufferable regions, practically abandoned due to the difficulty of surviving when one is not adapted. However, they are an excellent option for the use of solar energy throughout the year.

For example, the El Romero Solar plant in the Atacama desert in Chile produces equivalent energy for the consumption of 240 thousand homes and provides 100% of the energy required in Google’s data center in Chile.

8. Low greenhouse gas emission

The electricity that is generated by solar energy is practically pollution-free when compared to fossil fuels. The emission of greenhouse gases is reduced for two reasons:

  1. Once installed, the operation of photovoltaic systems does not release greenhouse gases;
  2. By obtaining energy by this means, the use of fossil fuels is being stopped.

9. Availability globally and beyond

Solar energy is available all over the world: the sun illuminates every corner of the Earth. Even in outer space. For example, the solar arrays on the International Space Station provide all the electrical power required by members of various expeditions.

10. Access to electricity in remote places

In some places where access to the public electricity grid is restricted, the use of photovoltaic systems is an acceptable option. For instance:

  • to run irrigation systems in the fields,
  • for road lighting,
  • to operate emergency call booths on motorways,
  • for navigation systems and buoys,
  • to run hydraulic pumps, and
  • for electric fences.

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Solar energy: disadvantages

1. Large tracts of land

The technology to collect and produce electricity on a large scale from solar energy requires large tracts of land, so it would compete with land for agriculture or forests. For example, the El Romero Solar plant comprises 776 thousand photovoltaic modules that cover an area of ​​280 hectares in the Atacama desert, in Chile.

2. High investment cost

The initial investment to purchase the photovoltaic system is high, since it requires, apart from the photovoltaic modules, the inverter, the charge controller, the wiring, the batteries and the installation.

3. Weather dependent

On cloudy and rainy days, the efficiency of collecting solar energy decreases considerably. For example, the rainiest days in winter generate less than a tenth of what can be obtained on a bright summer day.

4. Variability of sunlight

The angle at which sunlight falls on a particular region varies throughout the day. In fixed solar energy collection equipment, it is difficult to make the most of solar energy during all of the day.

Sunlight also varies depending on the time of year. For tropical countries, the number of daylight hours is roughly the same throughout the year; however, temperate-zone countries receive fewer hours of light during autumn-winter.

5. Populated centers far from power generation centers

Ideal production sites, such as deserts, are far removed from large populated centers. Although these sites provide the most efficient power generation, the distribution of this power to consumers presents a logistical problem. For example, El Romero Solar, in the Atacama Desert in Chile, is located 645 km from the capital, Santiago.

6. Disposal and recycling of toxic materials

The biggest environmental problem associated with photovoltaic systems is the use of toxic chemicals like cadmium sulfide and gallium arsenide in their manufacture. These chemicals are highly toxic and persist in the environment for centuries, so locating and recycling cell materials is a serious problem.

7. Low energy production efficiency

Of all the solar energy that reaches photovoltaic panels, on average only a fifth is transformed into electricity. Although it is possible to increase the efficiency with different materials, the economic cost is very high. However, the efficiency cannot exceed 30% due to the physics of current technologies.

8. Affected by air pollution

Air pollution, smog, and dust interfere with the transmission of light. Thus, in cities with notable air pollution, the efficiency of solar panels will be reduced.

9. Depends on backup systems

To maintain current levels of electricity consumption, it is required to have a backup system:

  • Storage system : like batteries, to save energy when there is sun and use it when there is no sun.
  • Backup systems : either using an electric generator or connected to the city’s conventional electric system.

10. Lack of information and technical support

There is much ignorance about how sunlight-powered power generation systems work and how much they produce. This is reflected in the fact that few companies have dominance in the systems market.

If any equipment or solar panels are damaged, private users depend exclusively on the technical support of the selling companies, whose technical knowledge is very limited.

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