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A quick look at the disadvantages of solar energy may just show that with everything in life, nothing is perfect.
To everything, there are always advantages and disadvantages, but the decision to forge ahead with a thing is usually from the realization that the good outweighs the bad.
Discussions on alternative sources of energy have always been there for the last couple of years.
Companies like Tesla are presenting quality solar solutions designed and developed for day to day uses, but these products are quite expensive.
There are some downsides to solar energy that demand your attention before considering them as a replacement for the currently used energy sources today.
First and foremost, solar energy is produced from nature and it depends on many factors that are not consistent and reliable.
Most of the companies that offer solar energy solutions haven’t reached that quality benchmark.
So, let’s have a close look at the 10 biggest disadvantages of solar energy.
1. Lack of Reliability
Solar energy is far from being reliable compared to other energy sources like nuclear, fossil fuels, natural gas, etc.
Since solar energy depends on sunlight, it can only produce energy in the daytime.
Solar panels can’t produce energy at night so some systems can store energy ultimately making the system more expensive.
Another method used by some solar panel systems is to use a backup from other non-renewable energy sources.
These types of systems, however, cannot be considered as purely environment-friendly.
Dependence On Sunlight
The dependence on sunlight restricts the output potential of solar plants to 35% – 40%.
Solar energy is heavily dependent on government subsidies, so this questions the economic reliability of the industry.
Reducing the cost of solar energy systems with subsidies using taxpayer money is not exactly reducing anything.
The cost of these systems must be reduced by advancement in the technology behind these systems and investment in R&D on solar energy.
The output of solar panels varies according to changing seasons getting more sunlight in summer and less in winter.
That’s not an attribute of a reliable system.
Large scale industries that demand steady reliable power supply can’t rely on such energy sources.
One of the factors that make solar energy more interesting is the environmentally friendly benefits it brought with it.
The real question is beyond theory when watching from a practical standpoint how environmentally friendly can it be when implemented in a company or house.
Since solar energy is not 100% reliable, we’ll certainly need backup generators to maintain the energy supply which runs on the same fossil fuels which are considered bad for the environment.
The manufacturing, installation, transportation, and maintenance of solar panels produce 0.18 pounds of CO2 for every kW hour.
While considering these factors, we can’t say solar panel systems are entirely free from CO2 emissions.
Toxicity Of Solar Panels
Solar panels have toxic metal components containing cadmium and lead.
The manufacturing of solar panels uses hazardous and toxic elements like hydrochloric acid, gallium arsenide, sulfuric acid, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, etc.
In 2016, The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) came up with a study that reveals that there were 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste at the end of that year.
Another study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) concluded that the disposal of solar panels is a major issue since toxic materials from these panels will leach into the soil.
Also, there is the question of what happens to these large numbers of solar panels containing toxic elements at the end of their life span.
Recycling of solar panels is a costly process, so solar panel installation companies just leave dumping to clueless consumers which will lead to a huge pile of toxic solar waste in the future.
All the toxic waste would finally fall into the lap of governments who will be responsible for protecting the environment and will be forced to use taxpayer’s money to recycle or dispose of them.
3. Installation Area
In comparison with other energy sources, solar energy utilizes a very large area for set up.
Usually, rooftops are considered for solar panels the structure or shape of the house can be an issue for installation.
The world’s largest solar farm in Morocco which produces 580 MW power has the size of 35,000 football fields.
Tamilnadu in India has a solar farm that covers 10 square km which produces only 600 megawatts of energy.
For a normal house, a 9.45 kW system will need an area of 1,862 square foot roof.
In some cases, when the rooftop area is not enough to place panels that are needed to meet the energy requirements ground-based panels are used.
To generate power for big companies that consume a lot of power, they will need a very large unused area to install solar panels.
Large Installation Areas
Large installation areas will be an issue in inner cities and areas with limited space.
When we compare this with the space required for other energy sources like nuclear power plants, the space needed is quite large.
In a time when the devices and batteries are getting smaller in size with the fast development in science and technology, a solar farm with a large number of giant solar panels doesn’t look like an energy source for the future.
Houses of middle-class people who can benefit from a cheap source of electricity cannot afford a large space for solar panel installation on their rooftops.
With the fast increase in population in developing countries, the land prices will get higher in the future further adding cost to the already expensive solar panels.
The efficiency of a solar panel is usually measured by how much solar energy a panel converts to usable power.
To get an idea of how efficient solar panels are, let’s take a look at some of the top solar panels and their efficiency below:
- REC Solar (21.7%)
- SunPower (22.8%)
- LG (21.7%)
- Solaria (20.5%)
- CSUN (21.2%)
The efficiency rating of old solar panels installed in the 2000s is below 15%.
Even the modern ones are only able to convert 30% of solar energy to usable power.
If we consider the most efficient solar energy systems which rotate with the sun’s position, theoretically, even they only have an efficiency rating of 85%.
To get a clear picture of the scale of this inefficiency, we just need to compare this to 91% efficient Nuclear plants in the United States.
According to a study by the Qualitative Reasoning Group of Northwestern University, solar panels installed on the roofs of houses only convert 14% of available solar energy into power.
According to the laws of thermodynamics, solar panels can never achieve 100% efficiency.
The best solar panels can come up with is 85% efficiency which is only possible when all other factors are perfect.
Most of the commonly used solar panels won’t track the sun’s position.
These types of solar panels only have an efficiency of 55% when we look into it from a theoretical standpoint.
The intensity of sunlight is not consistent round the clock.
It will vary with time and this will eventually affect the efficiency of a solar energy system.
Efforts To Improve Efficiency
It’s good to see the efficiencies of these systems are improving with the development of the technology behind solar energy.
But for solar energy systems, even if we improve efficiency by technological advancement, there are natural factors involved which we won’t be able to improve.
Companies like Tesla Powerwall are advancing fast in the technology behind battery storage.
Efficient affordable battery storage can improve the efficiency of solar panels in the future.
5. Expensive Energy Storage
The huge installation cost of solar energy systems has been a major discussion for a long time now.
Energy storage cost is making the already expensive solar energy systems more expensive.
The solar battery is a new technology just like solar panels.
Its cost depends on the materials used in its manufacturing and how much power it can generate.
Solar cells need some rare materials like copper indium gallium selenide and cadmium telluride.
This will keep the prices of solar panels high even though the installation costs have been reduced over the years.
Solar panels needed to power a typical home would cost thousands of dollars which makes the power they produce more expensive than existing energy sources.
Governments are providing heavy subsidies to bring down the cost of solar panels, but this would just add to the burden of taxpayers.
Another thing to be considered is that the expensive batteries these solar panels use as a backup won’t come under the warranty offered by the company.
So, the replacement of those batteries will be a huge expense for the homeowner in the future.
An interesting fact to consider here is that using energy from the grid at night and solar energy in the day will be a more cost-effective idea than spending money on expensive batteries for solar panels.
How Expensive Are These Batteries?
According to a recent post in electrek.co, Tesla is charging $64,634 for a 1,862 square foot solar roof which generates 9.45kW of power.
This price would go up after adding the cost of Powerwall and roof repair expenses which are estimated to be roughly $10,050, and $10,630
The cost of just the Tesla solar rooftop is around $35 per square foot.
A Tesla Powerwall 14kWh battery will cost around $7,100, including installation charges.
These batteries are best in the market, but very expensive.
LG’s 9.3 kWh Chem RESU battery costs $6,000 to $7,000 without including the cost of an inverter.
For a normal four-bedroom house, it would need three Tesla Powerwall batteries for storing power for a single day which would cost around $18,000 in total.
Even though the installation cost has been reduced with technological advancement over the years, it still has not reached that level where we can consider it as an affordable energy source.
6. Weather Dependence
It is a fact, that solar energy can’t be converted to power during rainy and cloudy days.
We also know that solar panels are completely dependent on sunlight to function efficiently.
Considering these facts, it is obvious that the efficiency of solar energy systems falls considerably low on cloudy and rainy days.
In habitually foggy areas, the production of solar energy will be reduced as well.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory has postulated that solar resource during foggy or low-cloud conditions is approximately 10% of the value under clear-sky conditions.
Rainy states in the United States like Hawaii or Louisiana won’t be a good choice for solar panel installation.
Power generation from solar panels depends on seasons as well.
In summer, the panels would get more sunlight and can produce more power while in winter, panels won’t be able to generate enough energy to meet needs.
Factors That Affect Solar Panels
Factors like temperature variations, snow, and wind can affect solar panels badly.
Some studies show that after temperature rises above 87 degrees Fahrenheit, each one-degree rise in temperature will lead to a decrease in solar panel efficiency by 1%.
According to some studies, it shows that the efficiency of solar panels goes down by 50% if there is more cloud cover to block the sunlight.
Thermodynamic panels are considered as a solution to generate power at night and in winter as it depends on temperature rather than sunlight.
The solar panel installation team should be well aware of the wind patterns and weather conditions in the area.
This is necessary for determining the solar panels suitable for installation in those conditions, otherwise, it won’t give the expected efficiency.
It’s good news, that some solar panels are tested under extreme weather conditions and certified by Underwriter Laboratories.
This will certainly help homeowners or companies interested in installing solar panels on their property.
7. Difficulty In Finding A High-Quality Local Installer
There aren’t many popular companies in the solar energy sector.
It would be difficult to find even one reputable solar panel installation company in most communities.
Lack of competition in the solar energy sector gives customers fewer options to choose from.
Most homeowners have to depend on pushy salesmen from new solar panel companies who might not have enough knowledge of what they are doing and this might lead homeowners to bad deals which they regret later.
Marketplaces like SolarSage are good initiatives to help homeowners choose from multiple quotes on a single platform.
The report by the U.S Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests that homeowners need to compare as many solar energy options as possible before picking one.
Customers are more likely to go for big companies when choosing a company for their solar panel installation which mostly leads to disappointment in the solar sector.
The quotes offered by large solar installers and small ones have a huge difference of $2000 to $5000.
Leading consumers to pay more for the service than its worth.
These few companies are asking for long term commitments like 10 to 20 years which is too long for a homeowner.
Certifications like NABCEP will help consumers find better companies to purchase solar energy products with confidence.
8. The Lifespan Of Solar Panels
In a perfect scenario, if correct inspections and care have been done, the lifespan we can expect is around 35 years.
The average life span most customers may get is around 25 years.
Usually, solar panel manufacturers give a warranty of 25 years.
However, it’s a fact that the power output of solar panels drops by 0.5% every year.
Since solar panels have a large surface area, chances for physical damages are high.
Heavy wind, snow, or other extreme climatic conditions can also increase the degradation rate.
Homeowners will need to do frequent maintenance and cleaning to get a better lifespan for their solar panels.
Solar panel degradation can happen by small cracks in silicon on solar panels causing issues in electrical connections.
When we compare these facts, with the expected life span of 80 – 100 years of some nuclear plant facilities in the United States, we can confidently say that the solar energy sector needs more research and development to be considered as a better alternative.
9. Difficult To Transfer
A solar panel can be transferred to another house when we consider this from a theoretical standpoint.
In reality, however, the transfer of solar panels is never advised and nearly impossible for a house or business.
Dismantling and refitting of solar panels is a very complicated process.
This process can cause extensive damage to the roof and panels.
Transferring solar panels will need huge installation, maintenance, and transportation cost.
Since solar panels use a lot of space and are tailored for a specific rooftop, chances are low that it can be installed properly on a new rooftop.
Subsidies won’t be considered for the re-installation of solar panels.
So, chances are that the consumer will lose a lot of money in the process of transferring solar panels to a new house.
Solar panels are installed considering wind patterns, energy requirements, and many other factors.
These considered parameters may not match the new location of installation.
For homeowners who move around a lot, solar panels don’t seem like a good investment.
10. Usage Of Water
Too much water is used in running solar energy systems.
Water is needed for cleaning collectors or concentrators of solar panels.
Some solar energy systems use water to cool down the turbine generators as well.
Since the locations of many large scale solar farms are in deserts, these farms can exploit the water resource to a high extent which may affect the plant and animal life in that area.
Solar farms that use cooling towers may use up to 650 gallons of water for every megawatt-hour produced.
Usage of water can be reduced by using Dry-cooling technology, but in that case, we will need to compromise on the efficiency of the solar energy system.
Dry cooling tech is not as effective as it is supposed to be when the temperature goes up above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Nevada Solar One parabolic plant near Las Vegas consumes about 300,000 gallons per acre yearly.
In India, the government set an ambitious target to be a leader in the solar energy sector by producing 20 GW by 2022 to meet the domestic energy needs and challenges in climate change.
But some studies estimate the water requirements for operation and maintenance of these solar farms to be between 7,000, and 20,000 liters per MW per wash if the solar panels are cleaned weekly.
For a country that already uses too much water for farmers, it is nearly impossible to use that much amount of water to produce solar energy.
Considering the above-mentioned disadvantages of solar energy, it is safe to say solar energy is inefficient and unreliable.
The solar energy sector is not ready to be considered as a replacement for widely used energy sources like nuclear, coal, etc.
The cost of solar panels may seem reduced over the years, but we must look at the fact that the solar industry is standing tall on subsidies and mandates from governments.
Limited environmental benefits do not make solar energy an alternative energy source, it must be consistent and reliable.
Solar energy still needs backup systems which are not a good attribute of a better energy source for companies or industries that need a consistent reliable power supply.
Having said that, the concept of solar energy as an alternative source of energy is encouraging for someone who looks to the future.
With companies like Tesla investing heavily in R&D in solar energy, there are strong chances to see solar energy come out as a strong replacement soon.