It is fair to say that the future of energy does not look very bright. Our regular dependence on oil and our diminishing reserves are worrying enough, but there is far more to it. The global demand for energy is predicted to reach 22.5 billion tonnes by the year 2035. The International Energy Agency warns that this figure could reach a staggering 32.9 billion tonnes if current trends continue unabated. This would be equivalent to lifting the whole planet’s gross domestic product (GDP) by about 18%.
While renewables such as solar power may offer a way forward, they come with their own set of problems. On the plus side, solar energy is abundant and infinitely scalable, meaning that it can be produced as long as there is enough sunlight. It is also becoming a lot more affordable, with declining solar panel prices making solar electricity more competitive against other energy sources. These factors alone make solar a desirable energy source, but it still has some major downsides.
Where Does All The Dirt Come From?
The main problem with solar energy is that, contrary to popular belief, it is not always clean. Solar panels are made of fine materials such as steel and copper, but these tend to deteriorate quickly with time, corroding under the harsh rays of the sun. Once this happens, the efficiency of the panel drops significantly, meaning that a lot of the dirt ends up as waste.
In 2016, the global solar power market was valued at US$16.9 billion and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 12.7% until the year 2035. This makes it a lucrative business, but the problems caused by solar energy are probably not something the industry will want to face.
Damage To The Environment
The energy industry is responsible for a great deal of environmental damage. Currently, the worldwide production of electricity from fossil fuels results in about 5% of the world’s total carbon emissions. The Energy Authority of California predicts that if current patterns continue, by the year 2030 carbon emissions will increase by about 4%.
While this may not seem like a big amount, according to Daniel Switzer, senior climate scientist at the University of California, it will make a significant difference. “If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then we need to reduce our energy consumption,” he said. “That means switching to clean energy sources such as solar and wind, and it also means reducing our dependence on oil.”
Switching to renewable energy sources is undoubtedly a positive move, but it comes with its own set of problems. The scale at which we take our current global approach to environmentalism may not be sufficient to counteract the effects of climate change. For example, if a forest is needed to offset the carbon emissions caused by a power plant, then it may simply be replaced by another. This is why experts believe that going green may be necessary for the long term health of the planet, but it comes at a price, and that price is certainly not negligible.
One of the major concerns regarding the widespread adoption of solar energy is its relative expense. Let us take Germany as an example. The country was once hailed as the ‘Solar Capital of the World’ for its many pioneering solar industry projects. Today, it is considered to be ‘solar power lite’, owing mainly to high electricity costs. This has resulted in dozens of small-scale, rooftop solar power projects giving way to large-scale solar parks. The latter provide a cheaper source of power, but they are nevertheless expensive to install and maintain.
It should be pointed out that these problems are not unique to solar. In fact, they apply to virtually all forms of renewable energy. Wind, water and solar power all have the potential to disrupt our way of living, but they are not without their problems. Wind energy for example, is usually associated with natural disasters such as floods and storms, while solar power is infamous for causing damage to crops.
The main point to take away from all this is that while renewable energy can undoubtedly play a role in the future of energy, it is still in its early days. The costs of switching to a renewable energy source are likely to go down over time, but they will never be fully discounted. The benefits are clear, but the transition to a 100% renewable energy future may still be many decades away.