Isn’t Solar Power the Perfect Solution?
The idea of harnessing the limitless energy of the sun seems great, right? We could decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, limit our greenhouse gas emissions, and dramatically curtail the effects of climate change. But, is it really that simple?
Is solar power truly a panacea for our impending global energy woes, a mirage, or somewhere in-between?
What factors are standing in the way of solar power being more widely adopted?
Cost of Solar Power
Solar power systems are still relatively expensive, compared to more traditional energy sources. Purchasing a solar system for your home will probably cost between $15,000 and $40,000, depending on the specs. In 8-12 years or so, the energy savings gained may cover the cost of the system, but recouping the substantial initial investment takes more patience than many homeowners are willing to exercise.
Efficiency of Solar Power
Solar technology is still relatively inefficient. The best solar panels commercially available at the time of this writing can only convert 21% of the light that they are exposed to into electricity. When you stop to think about how much power is required to run all of the electrical items in the typical household, and multiply that by all of the houses in a city, you realize that it takes an awful lot of solar panels to provide the necessary energy.
Plots of land large enough to house so many solar panels tend to be far outside the city, and transmitting that power over long distances adds immensely to the overall cost.
Supply and Demand
Many solar systems only produce power when they are exposed to direct sunlight. During the summer, that works just fine, as power consumption is higher during the day for most. However, power shortages occur during the winter months when direct sunlight is scarce. This makes solar panels impractical as a primary power source, and makes having backup power a necessity.
While it is true that battery systems which store power for later consumption can be integrated into a solar system, they are presently quite costly and bulky.
Production of Solar Power Panels and Infrastructure
Making solar panels is expensive and energy intensive. It may take ten years or more of peak operation for a solar panel to produce more energy than was consumed during its manufacture.
Another issue is that manufacture of solar panels uses large amounts of fossil fuels, and toxic metals (mercury, cadmium) and plastics (PVC). For a product that aims to alleviate our environmental woes, this is especially problematic. Also, the silicon used in the production of solar panels is expensive, and the process used to convert it from raw material to finished product is also very costly.
Hope For Solar
Solar technology is constantly being improved upon. New types of photoelectric modules are being developed that are more efficient, with some prototypes achieving nearly 34%. Alternate materials (such as cadmium-telluride) are being used, and streamlined production methods are being explored, in an effort to lower production costs and eliminate the environmental tolls.
Advances are also being made in battery technology that should make power storage less problematic. True, solar energy still has a long way to go, but if current trends continue, it could have a very bright future.[Photo Credit: DIY Solar Panels]