You’ve probably heard a lot about solar energy. After all, it was named The New York Times’ 2016 ‘Green Energy’ of the Year, as well as one of Time magazine’s ‘Top 10 Innovators and Trailblazers for the Future of Technology.’
This year, the popularity of solar power seems to be at an all-time high. With dramatic falls in the price of solar panels and the advent of ‘solar factories’ that produce energy much more efficiently than home systems, people are starting to understand the many advantages that solar energy brings.
But what is the greatest problem with solar? As a source of energy, it’s not difficult to find something you don’t like about solar. But is it actually a problem? And if so, what can be done about it? Let’s examine.
Let’s start at the very beginning: solar power is highly inefficient. On average, it represents 2% of total energy produced worldwide. That’s compared to 38% for traditional power sources and 50% for ‘green’ sources such as solar and wind. For context, traditional power sources include fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, as well as nuclear power. (See the EIA chart below.)
So what happens when you have millions of people trying to get their electricity from a small number of companies that produce solar panels? It’s inevitable that there will be some shoddy activity from time to time. Thankfully, the cost of testing and taking care of poor-quality products is almost nil in comparison to the cost of the product itself. This means that even one or two poor-quality panels can turn a profit for the manufacturer. (And if they don’t, there are plenty more where that came from.)
One of the biggest criticisms of solar energy is its lack of resilience. After all, if the sun doesn’t shine, you can’t produce energy. But as it turns out, this is a feature, not a bug. It’s an inherent quality of solar that makes it so attractive to producers and consumers alike.
Traditional power sources are designed to run on a steady stream of energy. This is achieved through huge power plants that are built to withstand many hours of constant operations. In contrast, solar is highly dependent on nature’s most abundant and versatile source of energy: the sun. As a result, solar has the potential to provide energy 24 hours a day, every day of the year. (For context, the sun doesn’t always shine and clouds can obscure the sun’s rays, preventing energy production altogether. In that case, you’d really have a problem.)
If you don’t believe in the resilience of conventional power sources, consider this: the U.S. power grid experienced an outage rate of 4.6% in 2016, as compared to the international average of 2.3%. Meaning that out of every 100 units of power that you use, you’ll need to turn on a backup generator for 4.6 hours.
One of the hallmarks of a modern, progressive society is our eagerness to embrace sustainability. And what’s more sustainable than using an energy source that’s completely generated and controlled by nature?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the environmental impact of the energy systems we use on a daily basis. In many cases, conventional power sources have a much bigger environmental footprint than solar. This is mainly because of the large-scale installation of turbines required to generate the electricity. In some instances, these turbines can have a very high carbon footprint due to the materials used for their construction (metal and concrete often lead to a higher carbon footprint).
In contrast, solar farms don’t require rare earth elements or any other limited natural resources to operate. This makes it much more ‘green’ and sustainable than conventional power sources. In fact, some solar farms use solar power to generate fresh biogas for fuel cell vehicles and even for home heating. So not only is solar power much more efficient than conventional options, it’s also more sustainable. (For more information on the environmental impact of various power sources, check out the 2018 edition of the Living Planet Sustainability Ratings, which compare 40 popular power sources based on 33 metrics that measure environmental impact.)
Last but not least, we have cost. At this point, you might be wondering why we’re spending so much time on a problem that doesn’t even appear to be a problem. After all, if solar is so great, then why don’t more people use it?
Certainly, the cost of solar energy has come down significantly in recent years. This is in part due to increased demand as well as the improved efficiency of solar panel manufacturing. But let’s put this in perspective: you’ll need to spend thousands of dollars just to install a very small solar system that can generate up to a few hundred watts of power. (For reference, a watt is a unit used to measure the amount of power consumed by an individual or a household. A watt measures power in watts, and there are 1,000 watts in a gigawatt. So a gigawatt of solar power would only cost you several thousand dollars to install.)
In light of this, it’s no wonder that countries and companies are looking towards solar as a cost-effective alternative to traditional sources of energy.
To wrap things up, let’s take a look at the EIA’s (The Energy Information Administration) 2016 Annual Energy Outlook. In this report, the EIA forecasts that the cost of solar electricity will continue to decline, reaching 4.75 cents per kilowatt hour in 2022 and 3.25 cents per kilowatt hour in 2027. (For now, let’s assume that energy costs remain constant at the current rate of 3.85 cents per kilowatt hour.)
Based on these figures, if you were to invest in solar now, you’d almost certainly recoup your investment in under a year. This is assuming of course that the sun shines constantly and without any complications. Of course, this isn’t the case. The constant shining of the sun can cause problems of its own. For example, excess exposure to sunlight can cause damage to your skin and lead to health issues such as skin cancer and Vitamin D deficiency. (For more information, see “Are You Getting Enough Sunlight?” on The Healthy Skeptic.)
So while the cost of solar has come down, this doesn’t mean that it’s free. In fact, there are several downsides to solar energy that make us question why we’d ever choose it over conventional power sources.
One of the biggest issues with solar is its lack of resilience. As we discussed, this is a feature, not a bug. It is something to be desired. After all, if the sun doesn’t shine, you can’t produce energy. But what if it doesn’t rain or snows to keep the power plants running?
Some have pointed out that since solar is completely dependent on nature for its functioning, we have no control over its output. If we assume that renewable energy is increasingly important and demand continues to grow, then will the price continue to come down? Or will we eventually see an overabundance of solar power and an increase in energy prices? (See “What Will Happen to the Solar Industry If Trump Backs Out of the Paris Climate Agreement?”)
So while the cost of solar has gone down, this does not mean that we should choose this energy source without caution. Conventional power is built to withstand fluctuations in generation, while solar is not. If you’re not careful, you may end up with an energy supply that doesn’t match your needs.
Another issue that crops up when discussing solar is its lack of resilience. As we established, this is something that the solar energy industry values highly. This is because of its dependency on the sun. While the sun provides endless energy, it doesn’t always shine and when it does, it doesn’t always do so evenly. (Remember: the constant shining of the sun can cause damage to your skin and lead to health issues such as skin cancer and Vitamin D deficiency. So while the sun is incredibly important for our planet, it isn’t always there when we need it. This is why solar power isn’t always suitable for powering our lives. But with the proper precautions, it can be a viable option.)