Pros and Cons of Solar Energy: Is It A Good Alternative Energy Source, or Should You Stick With Fossil Fuels?

There are two basic, divided camps on the issue of solar energy, with a neutral group of folks who really don’t care about it one way or the other…we’ll be leaving them out of this debate!

Both camps who care tend to be very strongly for or against using solar energy, for a wide variety of reasons.

Interestingly enough, one of the main reasons the sides are split is the environmental impact that solar energy has on the planet. Below, we’ll share what both sides say on this, and why.

Our aim is to give you a full view of both sides so that you can draw your own conclusions for a well-informed perspective.

After reading this, you should be able to answer for yourself (whether you read only this article or go deeper through all the linked data) what the pros and cons of solar energy are, and if you should use it or not.

power plant using renewable solar energy with sun

A Few Definitions in the Solar Energy Discussion

The first step in understanding the upsides and downsides to any discussion is knowing what the terms within the topic mean. A lot of these terms are familiar, but many of us have only a vague understanding of their exact definition.

Here are the key terms that will help your understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.

Solar Energy

Alternate terms: solar power

Solar energy is literally the “energy derived from the sun in the form of solar radiation.” The light from the sun that cuts its way through the various levels of the planet’s atmosphere is what we are familiar with, coming to us in multiple light wavelengths, which produce the variety of colors we’re able to see.

Photovoltaic Cells

Alternate terms: solar cells

According to dictionary.com, the photovoltaic effect is “the phenomenon in which the incidence of light or other electromagnetic radiation upon the junction of two dissimilar materials, as a metal and a semiconductor, induces the generation of an electromotive force.” This effect is what the term photovoltaic cells is derived from.

In layman’s terms in regards to using solar energy, this is the hitting of light on an object designed specifically to absorb and convert the solar radiation into solar power. These cells are made up of silicon and other materials to do this most efficiently.

These cells are the black segments on a solar panel arranged in a grid pattern.

Renewable Energy

Alternate terms: renewable resource(s)

Renewable energy, a term we’ve all heard, is any naturally occurring energy source that is presumed to be inexhaustible. No fossil or nuclear fuels are needed to create this sort of energy.

Examples of renewable energy include:

  • Wind
  • Solar
  • Biomass
  • Tidal
  • Wave
  • Hydroelectric
  • Geothermal

Eco-Friendly

Alternate terms: green, environmentally friendly

The most basic definition of eco-friendly is simply, “does not cause harm to the environment.”

This can be viewed in two forms.

  1. The actual use of an object or source does not cause harm to the environment
  2. The production of materials does not cause harm to the environment

Environmental Impact

Alternate terms: environmental damage, pollution

Environmental impact can be defined as anything that alters the environment – the natural world – via industry, service, planning, or projects.

flower and nature inside of a light bulb

The Benefits and Upsides of Using Solar Power

First, let’s take a look at the positive sides of solar energy and its employment in our homes, RVs, campsites, et cetera.

Solar Power Considered Eco-Friendly by Many

The use of solar power is an ecologically friendly practice. This means that the use of the energy does not cause harm to the environment. The harnessing of the power also does not cause damage to the environment.

Solar energy does not require the use of fossil fuels to power electronics or appliances. A solar panel connected to a battery or generator, or solar cells connected directly to a device, is all that’s required to restore energy.

For example, if you’re out hiking in a remote location where there are no electrical outlets like you’d find at a campsite in a state park, you can use a solar power bank or solar panel to charge your mobile phone. The energy source for this is strictly solar energy which is drawn in by the sun.

This also means that there are no emissions from the use of solar energy. Fossil fuels produce carbon emissions, including CO2. These emissions are released at the expenditure of fossil fuel resources like petroleum.

The emissions pollute the air, oceans, and plants, making life on the planet more difficult and less healthy for all creatures. We extract, refine, transport, and burn coal, natural gas, petroleum, et cetera at a much greater rate than CO2-absorbing trees and plants are able to cope with.

Since solar energy does not produce these emissions, it is considered a viable, eco-friendly power source that can be applied in a wide range of applications.

Solar Power is a Money Saver in the Long Run

While the initial cost of your solar energy setup is going to be fairly high, the long-term returns are also pretty high. You can calculate your exact returns on this using some specific formulas that look at your current energy use, initial purchase and installation costs, et cetera.

yearly net returns purchase solar panels solar action alliance
An example of how solar power can save you money long term. It may take you 10+ years to recoup your initial investment in savings, but once you hit that point, you begin to save quite a lot of money by converting to solar. (Source)

First, you should calculate how much energy you use. This can be done in two ways.

  1. Look at your energy bill. This will reveal your general usage on average per month.
  2. If you’re making other energy-saving changes, review the chart below to understand what the average appliance uses in energy.
  • Ceiling fan: 10-50W
  • DVD Player: 15W
  • CB Radio: 5W
  • Modem: 7W
  • Laptop: 25-100W
  • Drill (1/4 inch) 250W
  • Toaster Oven 1200W
  • Blu-ray Player: 15W
  • Tablet Recharge: 8W
  • Satellite Dish: 30W
  • Cable Box: 35W
  • TV – LCD: 150W
  • LED Light bulb (40-watt equivalent): 10W
  • LCD Monitor: 100W
  • Smart Phone Recharge: 6W
  • Coffee Machine 1000W
  • Fridge (16 cubic feet) 1200W

Next, you can use the chart below to calculate how much you would save with solar energy versus your standard electric bill.

LCOE of solar panel system installation over 5 10 20 30 years
The LCOE is the best way to compare whether you’ll be saving money if you invest in a home solar panel system. It is basically the average price you’ll be paying per kilowatt hour, averaged out over the entire life of your system. If it is below the price per kilowatt hour you are currently paying your electric utility, it’s a safe bet that solar will be financially worth it for you in the long term.

Solar Power is Safe for Both Indoor and Outdoor Use

When you use properly setup solar energy equipment, you can safely use solar power both indoors and outdoors. The equipment is designed to handle certain loads, so remain within that framework, and you’re good to go.

Your exact setup will vary from situation to situation, but solar panels and many components of the system are designed to withstand intense weather – heavy snowfall, steady rain, and even extreme temperatures in some cases – but you should always verify the IP rating before installing any equipment.

That being understood, it’s also safe to use solar energy to power indoor electronics and appliances, as long as you have a professional electrician do any wiring. Remember, solar power is still electricity and therefore can be dangerous for the untrained consumer to install.

Despite Lower Popularity, Solar Energy is Not a New Technology

Solar cells have actually been around since 1876 when William Grylls Adams discovered that selenium produces electricity when exposed to light. While this wasn’t efficient solar energy production, it started a movement towards the modern technology we use today.

Solar cells became available commercially in 1956, but the prices were hefty at about $300 per 1-watt. Since that time, the costs have dropped drastically as the technology has developed further, and now costs more like $1-$2 per watt.

As time moves forward, the costs for solar energy equipment continues to drop, making it more and more feasible for the average consumer to take advantage of it.

Solar Energy is Quiet

Unlike generators run on gas, solar generators are quiet. Most people don’t hear much from their solar power systems, including from the solar inverter.

Systems Run by Solar Power can be Portable

Whether you’re using solar power in your RV or campsite or setting up a solar power system at home, most solar energy equipment is highly portable. You can invest in individual devices like solar lanterns and string lights, or you can use portable solar panels and batteries to optimize this mobility of your solar-powered system.

Most Solar Equipment is Easy to Install

A large number of the electronic devices designed specifically for solar power are extremely easy to install. Most of these require simple placement or just a few screws for brackets to position solar panels and devices in appropriate locations.

For example, a solar-powered flood light needs no additional wiring, whereas a standard electric model may require an electrician to install it safely.

Solar Equipment Usually Doesn’t Require Much Maintenance

Solar panels and most devices are designed for outdoor use. They’re waterproof and have high IP ratings against many weather and climate types.

The basic maintenance for solar equipment involves cleaning of solar panels a few times a year and replacing or repairing pieces throughout the 25+ years that most devices are expected to last.

This also means that maintenance costs are lower than with other electrical devices that require rewiring or replacement on the regular due to standard weather.

The Downsides and Negatives of Using Solar Power

While solar power has a lot of positive aspects like low maintenance and potential portability, there are a number of downsides that should be considered by anyone considering installation of solar power systems.

mining operation in a quarry

Manufacturing Practices for Solar Equipment Isn’t Very Green

On the opposite side of the eco-friendly running of solar-powered equipment, the actual manufacturing involves a number of processes that are hazardous to the environment.

Mining for Minerals

Solar panels are made of a number of minerals including silicon and lithium. These minerals and various other materials in solar panels are mined. Cadmium, copper, and nickel must also be mined for the construction of solar panels and other equipment.

While mining these materials isn’t exclusively related to solar energy devices, it is a growing portion of the use of the materials. Specifically, solar and wind energy production use up the most copper of all renewable energy production practices. This copper use is almost five times higher in solar equipment than traditional electricity production uses.

Mining impacts the environment in a number of negative ways, including:

  • Mining contaminates drinking water wells in a number of regions across the world, including a number of towns in the western United States.
  • Acid mine drainage contaminates more than 40 percent of stream reaches.
  • Migratory birds are poisoned when they land in mine pits.
  • Mining produces toxic waste that must be eliminated properly.
  • Toxic waste containment is a challenging issue that is far from being resolved. This means that hazardous waste is continually poisoning the environment, often without a trace for many years.
  • Mining waste contamination is so bad that many people in places like Silver Valley, Idaho, have been forced to leave their homes for fear of terminal health issues.
  • Mining waste has caused massive death numbers among fish in a number of regions.

We could go on with the impact of mining, but this should give you an idea of the dangers and reasons these practices are not environmentally friendly.

Processing of Materials

Similar to mining, the actual processing of materials – preparation of the cadmium, lithium, et cetera for use in solar devices – has severe impact on the environment. More toxic waste is produced from these processes and must also be dealt with safely.

Natural Resource Reduction

Just like the other forms of energy, the initial processes behind solar equipment reduces the resources available.

The depletion of the various minerals and materials for the manufacture of solar panels is just as impactful as the depletion of these minerals for use in fossil fuel power uses.

The primary difference is that once solar power equipment is built, the reduction of resources stops while fossil fuel use continues to reduce other resources for power production.

Waste Disposal and Storage

While the EPA does its best to develop hazardous waste disposal regulations that balance out conservation and protecting the environment and humans, large amounts of the waste are not treated and stored properly.

Recycling toxic waste is one of the attempts the government has made to help the environment, but this does not deal with all hazardous waste. Some must be disposed of in landfills or incinerated. Both of these options perpetuate the pollution produced by these various manufacturing practices.

The Up-Front Costs of Solar Power Can Be Prohibitive for Some

Most people in the North American continent can afford some of the equipment required to go solar. A small pool’s solar heating system – a luxury item even – averages between $100 and $1000. Solar-powered flood lights typically run about $25 to $100. These things are mostly affordable.

However, setting up enough solar power to run your whole household will cost much closer to $10,000 to $30,000. This is why some government incentives offer as much as a $9,000 rebate for installing such a system.

For many, however, this full setup is significantly pricier than would be affordable all at once.

Solar Energy is Rather Weather Dependent

While solar energy is not only produced from direct, hot sunlight, the most efficient power will come from this. This means those who lie in low-light areas will not have as efficient a solar power system as someone who lives in sunny New Mexico.

This weather dependence can somewhat be combated by using amorphous solar panels instead of crystalline panels, but amorphous panels are much less efficient overall than other types of panels.

Heavy rain, cloud cover, low light in winter, heavily shaded terrain – think tall buildings in the city, close mountains and thick tree lines nearby – et cetera will all affect the efficiency of your solar energy production rates.

Some Solar Products are Space Hogs

Solar panels on the roof and small devices like solar pathway lights don’t require a lot of usable space.

But if you can’t use your roof for some reason, you’re looking at losing a large chunk of the yard to your solar panels.

For some, this is problematic, especially in urban and suburban environments where space is at a premium.

Many Find Solar Panels Unattractive

It’s a small price to pay for some, but many find solar panels ugly and unfavorable for their landscaping. If you’re particularly sensitive to aesthetics, you will need to consider how solar panels would look placed on your roof or in key sunny spots in your yard.

solar panels in the desert solar panel pros and cons

The Key Takeaways on Solar Panels Pros and Cons

There are powerful arguments on both sides of the discussion. The strongest revolve around financial savings and environmental issues. Here’s the recap on the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy to help you make your decision on solar panels pros and cons.

Pros of Solar Energy

  • Solar energy usage is eco-friendly
  • Solar power can be a major money saver in the long-term
  • Solar power is safe for indoor and outdoor use
  • Solar energy is quiet
  • Solar energy is portable
  • Solar equipment is easy to install

Cons of Solar Energy

  • Production of solar panels has a negative environmental impact
  • Up-front costs can be prohibitive for many
  • Solar energy is dependent on weather and terrain
  • Solar equipment can take up a large amount of space
  • Solar panels are unattractive to many

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