Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy
When we talk of renewable energy, it is impossible to leave out the most abundant source available to us: the sun. The amount of solar energy produced in just a single hour can power a year’s supply of electricity for the entire world! With such an infinite resource, it’s no wonder that governments are adapting our global energy supply to solar power. But as with everything, there are also solar energy advantages and disadvantages that should be considered, including whether solar is more harmful to the environment than we first thought.
As more of the global population gets access to electricity, the demand for cheap energy increases. This demand has resulted in an economy that is largely dependent on fossil fuels creating greenhouse gas emissions that are now overheating our planet.
Running in parallel is the constant developments in technology and automation, which drive the need for yet more power.
All this means that sustainable energy sources are more important than ever.
Clean and renewable solar energy could help bridge the fossil fuel gap, whilst assuring access to electricity for all. In fact, right now, solar energy is the fastest-growing form of renewable energy across the globe.
But despite the valuable benefits of relying on solar power for our electricity needs, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Solar, as with all forms of power generation has a carbon footprint all of it's own. In fact, no renewable energy source is 100% clean as of yet. Once you account for how materials are sourced, manufactured, transported and run, we suddenly find a hidden cost. And that’s before we’ve even begun to talk about disposal…
How does solar energy work?
To better understand how the harvesting and uses of solar energy affects the environment, let’s first go back to how solar panels work. Here’s a quick video explaining the process of how sunshine becomes electricity:
Solar electricity panels, also known as photovoltaics, are responsible for catching solar energy and converting it into usable electricity. They are comprised of smaller units called solar cells, which are made from semi-conducting materials, typically silicon.
When sunlight shines on this material, it causes particles of light, or photons, to knock off free electrons, thereby producing a flow of electricity.
Although it doesn’t necessarily have to be sunny for the solar panels to capture light, solar panels work better in sunnier locations.
An electric field must be established for the panels to work, and this is done by using other materials, such as boron and phosphorous, in conjunction with silicon to create positive and negative charges. PV cells are made up of either monocrystalline silicon, (which is more efficient and higher in cost), and polycrystalline, which is less costly but has lower efficiency.
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Solar panels are comprised of the following:
- Ethylene-vinyl acetate or EVA as a temperature- and humidity-resistant cover
- A polymer back sheet to regulate temperature
- A glass sheet to protect it from impact
- An aluminium frame
- A junction box as its central system
In order to produce a single solar module, a significant amount of energy is needed.
This is true for all stages of solar including mining, manufacturing, transportation, decommissioning and dismantling.
Complete reliance on solar energy depends upon overcoming two main challenges:
- The unequal distribution of sunlight around the world
- The inconsistency of its supply
That means the storage and efficiency of solar panels are two very important factors.
The good news is that technology for solar energy is fast-growing – innovations like a new type of solar cell or a new type of material for silicon solar cells could change the game forever.
Advantages of solar power
Solar energy advantages are many, but many questions still surround solar energy about its green credentials as it is now.
But let’s look at solar energy’s environmental and financial benefits first:
Solar power reduces carbon emissions
As it chiefly relies on the sun, the primary way solar energy positively impacts the environment is that it reduces carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. Unlike fossil fuels, solar power uses no pollutants and needs no other resources to function other than clean water.
Solar panels reduce dependence on the national grid… and your carbon emissions
Using solar energy helps drastically cut down the electricity you use from the national grid. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an average UK home implementing a photovoltaic (PV) system could reduce carbon emissions by 1.3 to 1.6 tonnes per year.
Solar energy is sustainable
As the global population continues to grow, these resources will soon be gone. As energy is harnessed from the sun, a solar system power source is limitless as long as the sun exists.
This reduces the strain on finite resources like coal, oil, and natural gas, which are contributing to global warming.
Solar panels are long-lasting
Though there is much room for improvement in the manufacturing process, solar technologies have longevity—lasting for about 30 years, with relatively low maintenance costs.
Of course, this too ultimately benefits the environment, with less need for replacement and maintenance, which could result in a lot of waste.
Solar reduces water pollution
Just like any manufacturing process, the making of solar panels still necessitates the use of some water.
However, the total amount of water required for solar energy is still significantly less than other energy sources, which need water for cooling purposes.
Solar increases property value
Each kilowatt of installed solar power adds to a property’s overall resell value.
Solar technologies can certainly be considered a long-term investment for the homeowner.
It can be used on underutilized land
Solar can be placed almost anywhere, meaning brown land or inhabitable areas can be used for solar panels without disrupting wildlife too much.
Solar provides accessible electricity to off-grid users
Solar energy makes electricity available for users who are living in distant areas and might not always have access to it, as long as they have access to sunlight.
Solar power is good for the economy
The solar energy industry provides as many as 16,000 jobs in the UK. Along with these jobs, solar energy also reduces the need for the UK to import electricity, keeping prices more stable.
Disadvantages of solar energy
- Despite solar powers ability to generate electricity, create heating and desalinate water, cost and efficiency are still the key barriers preventing it from being adopted world wide.
- Whilst solar panel systems eventually recoup their costs, the lifespan of the technology tends to be largely overlooked. Essentially it should go through the correct recycling process but often doesn’t.
- When also considering the energy it needs for mining, manufacturing, and discarding, there are many questions about whether solar energy is truly clean.
Batteries for solar panels
Alongside these drawbacks of solar power, there’s also the issue of batteries.
High efficiency storage batteries are needed to enable countries with low sunlight hours to store solar energy they’ve collected for later.
Batteries containing a number of chemicals, lithium, zinc (anode), manganese (cathode) and potassium which all need to be mined.
This is where the environmental impact of solar power starts to get hazy.
While we are a long way from being completely powered by clean energy sources, we have certainly made significant progress over the past decade, specifically since the 2016 Paris Agreement.
But we must tread carefully. It’s important to weigh up the advantages of solar energy whilst acknowledging the potential negatives of solar power and its impact on the environment.
Solar energy consumption is on the rise in the UK.
In 2020, renewable energy made up a record-breaking 47% of the UK’s electricity generation, and solar capacity grew by 545 megawatts (MW), marking a 27% rise from 2019.
By focusing on solar energy and wind energy, the UK has been able to reduce CO2 generated by power plants by approximately 60% in the last decade.
Following wind energy and biomass, solar is the third most generated form of renewable energy in the UK, comprising about 4% of its total electricity generation.
In line with its nine-step plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 the government are clearly making a bid to make energy more environmentally friendly. For instance:
- In 2020-2021, regulations about how new housing is built has been outlined in the Future Homes Standard.
- The NHS has a solid strategy to go net zero by 2040
- They also introduced a new initiative ‘the Green Homes Grant’ in May 2020, where homeowners could apply for £5,000 grants to help pay for renewable technology. However, the Green Homes Grant ran for just a handful of months before having funds reallocated to local councils to purchase insulation and double glazing windows for inefficient low income properties.
- The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) continues to run until March 2022, whereby homeowners are paid back over a period of 7 years for generating clean energy through renewable technologies in their home.
However, despite these promising plans, in terms of solar energy system and battery storage, the action on grants for solar panels has been a little limp.
For solar capacity to grow further in the UK, it’s clear that ongoing government incentives and support are going to be required.
With the introduction of the Feed-In Tariff in April 2010, about 992,065 solar panel installations were newly added during its active period. Unfortunately, the Feed-In Tariff was halted in 2019, and recently, an increased value-added tax on photovoltaic panels has been implemented.
Since then, the government has introduced the new grants for solar panels in the form of the Smart Expo Guarantee (SEG). This aims to support small low-carbon generators financially but overall isn’t incentive enough to safeguard the future of solar energy in the UK.
There are also a 5% tax break on solar panels for those receiving their pensions.
The only saving grace has been a new law that forces the largest energy companies to buy back a percentage of surplus electricity, enabling homeowners with solar PV panels to recoup some of the outlay costs of solar panels.
Cost of solar panels
You’re are saving significantly by installing solar PV panels and generating your own energy, particularly when compared to average energy company prices of 16 pence per kWh.
You can expect to spend anywhere between £5,500 to £6,500 depending on which solar panel brand you choose and who installs it for you.
The grants for solar panels (i.e. selling excess energy back to the grid) will definitely help you to regain some of that. However in terms of help with installation costs, there is currently nothing in place. (The Renewable Heat Incentive does not cover solar panels).
For those wishing to use batteries for solar panels to help them store enough energy to cover them overnight, that is an additional cost to consider.
Lifespan of solar panels
So how long do solar panels last? As it happens, the world’s first solar panel is still producing electricity at around 60 years old which goes to show what’s possible, but in general when buying solar panels you can expect the most efficient solar panels to last around 25-30 years.
Despite this, they will still likely go on to produce electricity even after that time.
Although this means that initial costs will be recovered, it’s important to bear in mind that, like any other equipment, solar panels do undergo degradation.
So as domestic solar panels (and solar batteries) age, they tend to produce far less electricity and are simply not as efficient.
Unfortunately, this proves to be an aspect of solar technology that can’t be overlooked if we’re going to avoid potential harm to the environment.
What causes solar panels to degrade?
Several factors cause degradation other than age. When installing solar panels, you can fully expect them to be able to withstand much pressure and fairly extreme conditions.
However, they’re not immune to damage. For instance, changes in weather cause strain on solar panels, resulting in micro-cracks. Debris could also accumulate and result in damage. Strong wind, snow, and yes, even sunlight, can cause degradation on the panels.
Manufacturers typically take into consideration a 1% rate of degradation each year. However, maintenance checks can help to extend the life of these technologies. In general, they need little upkeep, but solar power maintenance is still recommended.
Other than a regular cleaning, it is best to ensure that periodic checks by the manufacturer are done. Some elect to do annual inspections, while there are manufacturers that do routine checks every quarter.
Meanwhile, homeowners who have had PV systems installed in their properties can check their efficiency by monitoring their monthly power output. Most systems come with monitoring software. If you notice a decline in the electricity that is being generated, it might be time to get in touch with a technician who could address the problem.
Disposal and recycling of solar panels
If solar panels are damaged, it is possible that they will need to be replaced. So what happens to the solar panel that gets decommissioned?
Disposal and recycling of solar panels is an area of concern as it could pose serious environmental risks. This issue is particularly important, as the solar energy industry continues to grow.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), solar panel waste could reach 78 million tonnes by 2050, and the world could be generating 6 million tonnes of new solar waste yearly.
The disposal and recycling of solar panels have yet to be fully explored and remain a complex process.
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To recover materials used in the production of solar panels, such as silicon and silver, more sophisticated solutions are required. Otherwise, these modules could end up in landfills.
Once these modules are placed in landfills, valuable materials are put to waste.
Regular landfills are also not equipped in case leaching occurs. Leaching, wherein hazardous materials leach into the soil, is an important risk to consider in case solar panels are damaged or disposed of.
How can we make solar panels sustainable?
For the recycling of solar panels to be successful, materials used to build them must still be usable at the end of their life, decades later.
- While it may be more straightforward for materials such as metal and wiring, silicon needs specialty solutions that might need to melt it down.
- Glass also sometimes leads to impurities, such as cadmium, antimony, and lead.
Separating the materials and being able to recycle them uniquely is presenting to be a cumbersome and potentially expensive process – another challenge that the solar energy industry must face as soon as possible.
Innovation on recycling solar panels
The UK ranks among the top countries in the world for the use of solar energy, but the way forward requires sustainable growth.
To continue its momentum, the UK government must increase support and subsidies, as well as introduce effective regulations and policies for solar technologies. These policies should include:
- Efficient recycling solutions a priority with high-value solar recycling systems in place.
- Emphasis on repurposing materials wherever possible
- Innovation. The European Commission’s Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry program brings forth solutions to waste e.g. repurposing solar panels for powering housing in Belgium.
Is solar good or bad?
Ultimately, solar energy is good for the environment. As more policies are made and more recycling solutions become available to the public, a world totally powered by solar energy is not too far off a reality.
Some organizations, such as Recycle Solar in the UK and Veolia in the US have begun to emerge as specialists in solar panel recycling, with a vision to make the process both comprehensive and mainstream.
Manufacturing, disposal, and recycling remain to be challenging areas before solar power systems can be fully adopted. As technologies rapidly develop, there is hope for this renewable source to overcome these challenges.
If you’re interested in installing solar panels in your home, know that you’ll be significantly reducing your carbon footprint.
We often find that as well as having solar panels installed, combining them intelligently with technologies like an air source heat can dramatically increase a home's efficiency whilst decreasing energy bills by as much as 64%.
To learn more about solar panels why contact us and request a call back or call us on 01892 347291 for more information.
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