With the cost of electricity rising 3%-5% each year, you may be considering alternative sources of energy, such as solar. But before you go and install a solar system on your house, some major disadvantages need to be weighed in.
With solar power having the highest initial costs of any other renewable energy source, you would think it would be pretty good. But in reality, solar panels have low efficiency.
If you’re in a prime location you will be lucky to get more than a 22% conversion rate, with the best and most expensive technology available.
Then there is the potential of the solar panels being damaged by storms. On top of the cost of replacing the solar panels, the damaged ones have to be handled and disposed of properly due to the toxic compounds used inside.
This article will discuss the major disadvantages of solar energy that should be taken into consideration before deciding on whether or not to go solar.
1. Location & Sunlight Availability
Your latitude is one of the main factors in determining the efficacy of solar power. Not all locations get the same amount of annual sunlight, with the efficacy of solar power dropping dramatically the farther you get from the equator.
This means residents in places like Canada and Russia are at a solar disadvantage. However, in places like Hawaii where they average 277 days per year of rain and clouds, their location to the equator is irrelevant because they just don’t have enough unclouded sunlight reaching the ground.
Solar efficacy is also determined by the season. In the summer you can generate more electricity than you need because the earth is tilted so that the sun is closer to your location. While in the winter, the earth’s tilt moves your location further from the sun making it so you can’t generate enough electricity to supply your needs.
Like everything else that is left in the sun, solar panels will undergo deterioration from ultra-violet rays. Things like wind, hail, snow, dirt and temperature fluctuations are also serious threats to solar panels.
2. Installation Area
For homeowners that want to install solar panels, the installation area is not going to be that big of a deal, especially when most of the time they are installed on the roof. However, big companies that want to produce a lot of power are going to need a very large installation area to provide electricity on a consistent basis.
The largest solar field is located in Spain and sits on about 173 acres and provides power to nearly 12,000 households. That’s 173 acres of land that cannot be used for anything else, like grazing animals.
Since solar energy relies on the sun, electricity cannot be generated during the night, requiring you to either store excess energy made during the day, or connect to an alternate power source such as the local utility grid. This means that you will have to pay more on top of the high cost of the solar panels.
Clouds and storms also restrict the amount of energy you can produce by blocking light rays that would have otherwise been absorbed by the solar panel.
According to the Qualitative Reasoning Group with Northwestern University, most solar panels on people’s houses convert only 14% of their available energy into power. Even today’s most efficient solar panels convert only 22% of their available energy into power.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, solar cells will never reach 100% efficiency. The highest theoretical maximum efficiency is 85%, and that’s with mirrors and motors to follow the sun.
For a system that does not track the sun, the highest theoretical maximum efficiency is only 55%. The same is true for systems that track the sun on cloudy days.
5. Pollution & Environmental Impact
The environmental impacts associated with solar power are land and water use and pollution, habitat loss, and use of highly hazardous materials in the manufacturing process.
Thinking back to the installation area, land use by solar fields can be massive, and unlike with wind power, sharing the land for agriculture uses is not an option. Solar power also affects land use when it comes to mining and production of materials needed to produce photovoltaics.
Among the compounds found in solar panels is cadmium and lead, extremely toxic metals. There are a number of other toxic and hazardous materials used in the production of solar panels including gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone.
In the United States, manufactures are required to make sure these high value substances are recycled rather than disposed of. However, in other countries such as China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, where over half of photovoltaics are manufactured, these hazardous materials are being irresponsibly disposed of in fields, polluting the air, water, and soil.
6. Expensive Energy Storage
Most consider storing large amounts of electrical energy as the single biggest obstacle in producing solar power on an industrial scale. Currently, the battery storage system options for storing solar energy as electrical energy are very expensive.
Tesla has created the Powerwall battery to store solar energy for later use. However, with one 14kWh battery costing around $7,100 with installation, these batteries are very expensive. If you wanted to have one day’s worth of back-up energy for a four bedroom house, you would need three tesla batteries, coming to a whopping total of $18,300.
7. High Initial Cost
It cost between $15,000 and $29,000 for average sized systems that produce between 4kW and 8Kw of power. These costs include the solar panels, inverter, mounting hardware and wiring, installation, permits, repairs, monitoring and maintenance costs, and additional operation and overhead costs.
You may notice this does not include a battery storage system, which is an additional cost. Battery storage systems are not required, if you plan on supplementing your energy needs by connecting to the local energy grid.
If you factor in the cost of a battery storage system as described previously, you’re looking at a potential total cost of between $33,300 and $47,300 to reliably supply enough energy, day and night, for the average four bedroom household. Even then depending on the climate and your location, you may have to reduce usage and be more frugal with how you use your energy.
Another factor to consider when looking at the initial cost is the payback period. For an $18,000 system, you are looking at 20 years before you make the money back from the savings created by solar power. That is not very reasonable for most people and their finances.
While solar energy is considered an inexhaustible renewable resource, the way we currently harness that energy has many disadvantages from being unaffordable to inefficient. However, solar technology is still in its infancy and many good ideas are beginning to surface.
For example, research on energy storage issues has found two different methods that could be used to store electrical energy in the future.
Finding inspiration in existing technology, scientists are creating flow batteries that use small organic molecules that help rhubarb plants store energy, called quinones, rather than the toxic and very expensive metal vanadium ions. Researchers predict this technology could take the present cost from $0.02 per kilowatt-hour down to $0.0025 per kilowatt-hour.
The other method, which is really quite ingenious, takes the solar energy produced to create methanol from carbon-dioxide instead of electricity. The plan is that a plant would burn the methanol as fuel, which would convert it back to carbon-dioxide that would be re-captured and stored. The goal is to reduce emissions by recycling carbon, instead of letting escape into the atmosphere.
One thing is for sure though. Solar energy (for things outside of basic outdoor solar lights) still has a long way to go before it is affordable, efficient, and environmentally friendly.
If you have questions or comments, you can continue this conversation in the comments section.
Featured Image Credit: Activ Solar @ Flickr