Solar Power - Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Power

Solar Power - A Renewable Energy Source

Solar power gets a lot of press these days as a renewable energy source, and it's natural to consider it as a potential way to power some or all of your home. Let's take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of solar power when looking at power sources for the homeowner or small business.

The key selling point is that solar is a renewable resource. There are other potential renewable power sources, such as wind and low head hydroelectric, but solar seems to have a lot of attention. There are actually several ways that are possible to leverage solar for power generation. One that has been around for decades is to use the solar heat to directly generate heat for the home. Traditionally this is primarily for sourcing hot water in the home. Another recent use is to heat swimming pool water. And the other most popular use for home energy is to generate electricity using photoelectric cells. Photoelectric panels have been used in specialized applications for years (that's how most long term space vehicles/satellites are powered.) Finally, there have been a lot of improvements recently in generating electricity using solar heat to generate steam and drive traditional turbines, but these are on a scale that is not going to be practical for the homeowner for years to come.

Solar Panels on House Top
Solar Panels on House Top | Source

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Advantages of Solar Power

Clean - Solar is a clean resource. Once the panels are in place, there is little impact on the environment, especially if the panels are mounted on the roof of a home or business. This does need to be balanced with the environmental impact of making the solar panels. This is more true with photoelectric, as these are semiconductors ( like the electronics of your TV or sound system) which do have an environmental impact. Certainly there are no greenhouse gas emissions from the ongoing operation of a solar panel.

Ubiquitous - We like to think that sunshine is everywhere. Practically speaking though, it is more available in areas like the Southwest US, basically closer to the equator is better. But however much you have, it is there and not controlled by other businesses or countries.

Free - Once you have set up a solar panel and paid for the equipment, the cost of the solar itself is free. They also tend to have a pretty low maintenance cost, as there are often no moving parts.

Quiet - Unlike wind power, there is little or no noise from a solar panel. Some of the very high efficiency panels track the sun as it goes through the sky daily, but this is usually barely audible.

Aesthetics - Once again, unlike wind power which has a generator high in the sky, solar panels are often installed flat on a roof, and so have very little visual impact. If you were to go off grid, then there would also be no need for power lines, but practically speaking many cities have underground utility lines, and with no lines you can't sell excess power back to the grid.

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Disadvantages of Solar Power

High Initial Costs - Especially true for photoelectric panels, even with tax credits the high initial costs make it difficult to see an economic payback in a reasonable time frame.

Availability - In any application, solar is only available during the day. If you are not trying to go off the grid, this is not necessarily a major problem, because in most places, especially in the Southwest, the daylight hours are when electricity demand surges because of the need for cooling. But, for solar to be the only source of energy for a home (or even for the solar heated power plants), some way to store or flywheel the energy is needed. Further there is the variability introduced by seasonal changes and cloudy days, making the energy supplied from a solar system highly variable, a characteristic that gives power engineers headaches.

Interconnect costs - Since solar electric generates lower voltage DC power, in order to be used by typical household appliances, or to interconnect to the the grid, some type of inverter is required to convert the power to 120 V AC. For grid interconnect, this tends to be an expensive design, as there are further constraints on the design (e.g. it needs to shut down when the grid goes down, some type of net metering is needed, etc.)

Size - While there is a lot of solar energy, it is actually a relatively diffuse power source (that's a good thing, otherwise we would burn to a crisp when we went outside). Combine that with the very low efficiency of today's photoelectric devices, and a solar panel system large enough to power a home tends to be larger than the home, especially with the systems that are mounted flat and do no tracking. Solar power has many advantages, but it's not without its disadvantages. As the state of this technology continues to improve, and we look forward to the day when we can all have all the free power we need.

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