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The advantages and disadvantages of solar energy
Sunstainable Australia | March 5th, 2012
Being in the solar power business, we’re sold on the advantages of solar power. But the benefits of solar energy extend way beyond the generation of electricity.
Most of our energy
One of the biggest advantages of solar energy is that it is the source of nearly all the other energy we use. Oil, gas and coal are all derived from ancient plants that relied upon sunshine to grow. Wind power, wave power and hydroelectricity are possible because the sun drives our weather systems. Even tidal power, the result of the tug of the moon upon the earth, relies upon a liquid ocean. Chief amongst the advantages of solar energy is that we get just enough of it to keep water in a liquid state. Otherwise, Earth would be a lifeless frozen ball.
With a track record like that, perhaps our exploration of solar energy advantages and disadvantages can be forgiven for being a bit light on disadvantages. Yes, energy from the sun causes damaging storms, fades the curtains and gives us sunburn if we’re not careful, but what’s that compared to the existence of life?
From energy to power
This talk of the pros and cons of solar energy in its entirety is a bit academic. Of more practical importance is our realisation that burning every scrap of oil and gas and coal that we can get our hands on will have serious consequences. They are finite resources, so how will we meet our appetite for power when they’re gone? And then there’s the issue of climate change. To solar energy disadvantages add the fact that the sun is the source of the extra heat that is trapped in our atmosphere by the excess carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels.
What can we do about it? A good place to start is to recognise the real and growing benefits of solar power.
Solar power advantages
Amongst the advantages of using solar energy is that it will always be with us. The Sun might run out of fuel in a few billion years’ time, but not before it has turned into a giant that will fry the Earth to a crisp. By the time we run out of sunshine, there won’t be anyone left to complain.
Solar power can also be made close to where it’s used. This cuts out transmission losses. Think of all the rooftops with perfect exposure to the sun, on homes and factories and shopping centres. Businesses in particular are often in the strongest position to use solar power because they can use it when and where it is created. Solar power benefits everyone in that it delays the need for upgrades to electricity transmission lines and power stations.
Solar power is clean. Solar power systems quickly generate more energy than is required to make them, allowing them to go on and produce pollution-free electricity for many years.
Solar power disadvantages
We hate to admit it, but solar power isn’t perfect. Chief amongst the disadvantages of solar energy is that, on average, it isn’t available for half the day. In summertime it may be available to counteract the peak loads caused by air conditioners, but meeting winter demand for heating is a bit of a challenge for solar. Solar power can be stored and recovered from batteries, but these add considerably to the cost of solar power systems. However, advances in battery technology and the roll out of electric vehicles may open up new opportunities for storing solar power. Large-scale plants that store heat from the sun and use it to generate power at night are also under construction in some countries.
Cost can also be counted as one of the disadvantages of solar energy, but once again the situation is changing rapidly. Although generation costs of solar power remain higher than for many other forms of generation, roof-mounted solar power systems can now deliver power to households and businesses for less than cost of grid power.
Weighing up the pros and cons of solar power
Well, we’re biased. But running through the list of solar power advantages and disadvantages, and doing our best to take as balanced a view as possible, we still think things stack up pretty well in favour of the sun. Solar energy benefits all living things on Earth in many different ways. As we get better and better at harvesting that energy and turning it into power, there is every reason to believe the benefits of solar power will be enjoyed by an increasing number of people for as far into the future as we can imagine.