fossil fuel supplies and considers the harmful environmental impacts of decades of pollution, attention turns to alternative means of energy supply. One of the most intriguing is that of solar energy, an apparently near perfect source of cheap power that might just be the answer to all our prayers and which is becoming increasingly popular as technology catches up with the original vision. However, while solar energy is undoubtedly one of the most efficient and popular forms of alternative energy, it still has a few drawbacks which are worth considering.
The biggest clear advantage of solar energy is that it is indefinitely renewable and is only limited by the lifespan of the sun itself. And just in case you were worrying about that, it’s good for at least a few billion years to come¹. There are therefore no such worries as there are with oil and other non-renewables about a restricted lifespan and a subsequent need to find another supply when it runs out.
The second important advantage of solar is that there are no greenhouse gas emissions in the generation of energy (only in the production of the panels themselves), which contributes to mitigating the effects of global warming². The energy is produced by conducting the sun’s radiation, which is a process that is completely devoid of any chemical by-product, unlike the burning of polluting fossil fuels.
Another significant consideration is that solar energy avoids complexities of politics and price volatility, as seen with oil, where conflicts in the Middle East (such as recent instability over Houthi insurgents and Saudi air strikes in Yemen) have caused significant price rises due to transportation and security issues. As the sun is accessible the globe over, it is less susceptible to political manipulations for its control than oil and mass solar power even hints at a truly democratic future where energy isn’t controlled by faceless commercial entities whose bottom line is the all-conquering dollar.
Eco-systems and habitats too benefit from widespread human use of solar energy. Areas such as Canada’s boreal forests, which contain profitable tar sands, or the Niger Delta, valued for its oil resources, have both been brutalized by excessive mining and it will be many years, if ever, before they return to a healthy state. However, solar energy doesn’t rely on the constant extraction of material, therefore preventing the needless destruction of forests and other ecosystems⁴,⁵.
However, solar energy isn’t completely perfect and there are drawbacks to be considered. Firstly, it isn’t particularly efficient, thanks largely to issues with the technology, meaning that a great deal of energy is lost in the process. Most commercially available panels manage around 10-15% efficiency, meaning that you may need more panels to meet your needs, which obviously requires a great deal of surface area⁶. Technology is improving, with recent advancements made in the use of perovskite, a cheap and easy material to synthesize and which can be added to panels to improve their efficiency⁷. For the moment though, the relative inefficiency of solar is still worth remembering.
An undeniable fact regarding solar panels is that they are large, bulky and expensive to install. Although the energy produced eventually ends being effectively free, the panels themselves require a fairly hefty fee upfront to install, making them less appealing to private individuals. Subsidies are and deals with energy companies or governments are available for private households and businesses, but uncertainty over solar’s future make these a confusing area for the uninformed, leading to less than hoped for uptake in many areas⁸,⁹.
A further problem is that of storage. Solar power is notoriously variable in its output and is obviously not produced at night but excessive mounts need to be stored somewhere. Solar drip feed batteries are available to solve this problem but again they are expensive, partly because solar hasn’t been widespread enough to justify investing in very expensive technology¹⁰. Again though, this is an area where solutions are being sought, and optimistic supporters of solar energy believe that solutions will be found in time¹¹.
Solar energy is clearly not the single perfect solution to the world’s energy crisis but it is a vital part of it. It has its disadvantages but many of these are technical in nature and are likely to be overcome as technological innovation advances. Along with other renewable sources such as geothermal, wind and tidal power, solar forms a promising alternative to more polluting forms of energy and together they can take us towards a brighter, cleaner future.