13 Fundamental Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy

Advantages of solar panels on the roof of a solar barn
By Greg Whitburn

The last 20 years have seen massive developments for solar.

Let's explore the key advantages and disadvantages of solar energy today.

Advantages of Solar Energy

1. Reduced green house gases

The first and foremost advantage of solar energy is that, beyond panel production, solar does not emit green house gases.

Solar energy is produced by conducting the sun’s radiation – a process void of any smoke, gas, or other chemical by-product.

This is the main driving force behind all green energy technology, as nations attempt to curb emissions.

Italy’s Montalto di Castro solar park is an example. It avoids 20,000 tonnes per year of carbon emissions compared to fossil fuel energy production.

2. Ongoing Free Energy

Another advantage of using solar energy is that beyond initial installation and maintenance, solar energy is free.

Solar doesn’t require expensive and ongoing raw materials like oil or coal, and requires significantly lower operational labor than conventional power production. Raw materials don't have to be constantly extracted, refined, and transported to the power plant.

Life expectancy ranges between manufacturers, but many panels produced today carry a 25-30 year warranty - with a life expectancy of up to 40 years.

3. Decentralization of power

Solar energy offers decentralization in most (sunny) locations, meaning self-reliant societies.

Oil, coal, and gas used to produce conventional electricity is often transported cross-country or internationally. This transportation has a myriad of additional costs, including monetary costs, pollution costs of transport, and roading wear and tear costs, all of which is avoided with solar.

Of course, decentralization has its limits as some locations get more sunlight than others.

4. Going off the grid with solar

Solar energy can be produced on or off the grid.

On grid means a house remains connected to the state electricity grid. Off grid has no connection to the electricity grid, so the house, business or whatever being powered is relying solely on solar or solar-hybrid.

The ability to produce electricity off the grid is a major advantage of solar energy for people who live in isolated and rural areas. Power prices and the cost of installing power lines are often exorbitantly high in these places and many have frequent power-cuts.

Many city-dwellers are also choosing to go off the grid with their alternate energy as part of a self-reliant lifestyle.

5. Jobs

A particularly relevant and advantageous feature of solar energy production is that it creates jobs.

The EIAA states that Europe’s solar industry has created 100,000 jobs so far.

Solar jobs come in many forms, from manufacturing, installing, monitoring and maintaining solar panels, to research and design, development, cultural integration, and policy jobs.

The book Natural Capitalism offers a good perspective on the employment potential of green design and a prudent approach to using resources.

The book proposes that while green technology and associated employment can be expensive, much greater money can be saved when combined with proven "whole-system" efficiency strategies (e.g passive lighting and airflow).

With solar energy currently contributing only an estimated 4% of the world’s electricity, and an economic-model where raw materials don’t have to be indefinitely purchased and transported, it’s reasonable so assume solar jobs are sustainable if the solar industry can survive the recession.

6. Solar’s separation from politics and price volatility

One of the biggest advantages of solar energy is the ability to avoid the politics and price volatility that is increasingly characterizing fossil fuel markets.

The sun is an unlimited commodity that can be sourced from many locations, meaning solar is less vulnerable to the price manipulations and politics that have more than doubled the price of many fossil fuels in the past decade.

While the price of fossil fuels have increased, the per watt price of solar energy production has more than halved in the past decade – and is set to become even cheaper in the near future as better technology and economies of scale take effect.

Furthermore, the ever-abundant nature of the sun’s energy would hint at a democratic and competitive energy market – where wars aren’t fought over oil fields and high-demand raw materials aren’t controlled by monopolies.

Of course, a new form of politics has emerged with regard to government incentives and the adoption of solar, however these politics are arguably minor compared to the fossil fuel status quo.

7. Saving eco-systems and livelihoods

Because solar doesn’t rely on constantly mining raw materials, it doesn’t result in the destruction of forests and eco-systems that occurs with many fossil fuel operations.

Destruction can come in many forms, from destruction through accepted extraction methods, to more irresponsible practices in vulnerable areas, to accidents.

Major examples include Canada’s tar sands mining which involves the systematic destruction of the Boreal Forest (which accounts for 25% of the world’s intact forest land), and creates large toxic by-product ponds [1].

The Niger Delta is an example where excessive and irresponsible oil extraction practices have poisoned fishing deltas previously used by villagers as the main source of food and employment, creating extremely desperate poverty and essentially decimating villages [2].

A more widely known, but arguably lower human-cost incident is the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed 11 people and spilled 780 thousand cubic meters of crude oil into the sea.

8. The best is yet to come

Solar technology is currently improving in leaps and bounds. Across the world, and particularly in Europe, savvy clean technology researchers are making enormous developments in solar technology.

What was expensive, bulky, and inefficient yesterday, is becoming cheaper, more accessible, and vastly more efficient each week.

Disadvantages of Solar Energy

1. Solar doesn’t work at night

The biggest disadvantage of solar energy is that it's not constant. To produce solar electricity there must be sunlight. So energy must be stored or sourced elsewhere at night.

Beyond daily fluctuations, solar production decreases over winter months when there are less sunlight hours and sun radiation is less intense.

2. Solar Inefficiency

A very common criticism is that solar energy production is relatively inefficient.

Currently, widespread solar panel efficiency – how much of the sun’s energy a solar panel can convert into electrical energy – is at around 22%. This means that a fairly vast amount of surface area is required to produce adequate electricity.

However, efficiency has developed dramatically over the last five years, and solar panel efficiency should continue to rise steadily over the next five years.

For the moment though, low efficiency is a relevant disadvantage of solar.

Solar inefficiency is an interesting argument, as efficiency is relative. One could ask “inefficient compared to what?” And “What determines efficiency?” Solar panels currently only have a radiation efficiency of up to 22%, however they don't create the carbon by-product that coal produces and doesn’t require constant extraction, refinement, and transportation - all of which surely carry weight on efficiency scales.

4. Batteries to store solar produced energy

Solar electricity storage technology has not reached its potential yet.

While there are many solar drip feed batteries available, these are currently costly and bulky, and more appropriate to small scale home solar panels than large solar farms.

5. Solar panels are bulky

Solar panels are bulky. This is particularly true of the traditional silicon crystalline wafer solar modules. These are the large solar panels that are covered in glass.

New technology thin-film solar modules are much less bulky, and have recently been developed as applications such as solar roof tiles and “amorphous” flexible solar modules. The downfall is that thin-film is currently less efficient than crystalline wafer solar.

What's next for solar?

One feature of solar energy is that it spurs discussion and re-assessment of the importance and interaction between economics, environment, and investment.

There is debate and polarization of perspectives and interests.

While not everybody is in favor of solar, the fact that there is discussion about the validity of the status quo is a fascinating development. The monopolistic nature of many industries, the pitfalls of solely focusing on economics, and environmental disregard, are increasingly central topics.

At a practical level, many governments and state authorities are encouraging solar use through incentives such as subsidies, rebates and tariffs. California is an interesting example of such measures in action.




First published January 10, 2012
Last updated February 13, 2021

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165 comments on “13 Fundamental Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Energy”

  1. In the 70'spossibly earlier solar panel plant was constructed. Why it never took off and is still in operation is unknown to me. It was dismantled and completely removed why?hum maybe it was due to maintenance and or never produced electricity that was cost effective. Well any way here we go again and they are now in the process all over agian since 2013 here we go agian. All I think is it is just anonther PR propaganda move to make the El Paso Electric company look as they are catering to the governments idea that Green energy is the way to go. Come on man wake up America and electric companies this is just another way for the government to push green energy as the future source of energy. Yea right! Get withit the amount of land space and number of solar panels would be so expensive that it would take 20 + years to recover cost and by that time the maintenance cost were included it would be just plain a waste of money and land... We need to as Americans sy let's use some other proven source of fuel that would be more cost effective and most of all have a way to produce electrical power that works day and day regaurdless of weather conditions.

    1. In California there is a lot of pressure to go solar. Government incentives, free installation, etc. supposedly are the "carrot" to get customers to buy into it, but with the big utility companies all having their hands in customers' back pockets, there is little incentive for them to lower their rates. In fact, rates continue to climb.

      The deal is that your panels produce x amount of power, which is sent back to the source solar company. They sell you back 75% of what you would normally use, but at a lower tier price. Then the utility company makes up the difference by billing you for the balance at a lower tier price. Until the utility companies lose their geographic monopolies there is little competition and they can charge more to compensate for the lost profits from the solar homes. Confusing, but it's all about people lining their pockets in the name of "helping you go green".

    2. Wow Bob,
      Did you really email this with all its typos and grammatical errors? I'm still trying to decipher what you meant? If an alternate source of power is to be used, what is YOUR suggestion?

    1. Water heating palens are heavy (sometimes). Solar electric palens are light about 3 pounds per square foot, which is not any heavier than the other roofing materials that already go on the roof.The big contributors to electric usage are electric heat, air conditioning, and a pool. If you have one or more of these, that will change the answer dramatically. The best thing to do is call up a solar installer, and ask for a free quote. Have a year's worth of electric bills on hand. They'll figure out how large an array would be needed to cut your bill in half, and how much the system would cost. You can always say no thanks after getting the quote.A 3 kW array keeps up with our house in California, but we have no A/C, no electric heat, and no pool.

  2. There is never any reference to the fact that without effective storage capability, the community power plant has to produce power as before in case a cloud blocks the sun. Individual production of greenhouse gases is down, but no community reduction as a result of solar

  3. The contents are clear, relevant and well written. Very useful to anyone writing/studying solar energy or just interested in getting some information. Well done!

      1. I believe that i came up with the solotiun to help all small nations and islands especially the Caribbean. technology has advance tremendously and they are new ideas and inventions that could eliminate pollution and hunger in many nation. Advancement in solar power, wind energy,m bio-agriculture, energy sufficient homes just to name a few can eliminate hunger, reduce energy dependence and improve way of life. however, for large nations these plans seem impossible. Today i realize that despite the short coming in large nations, small islands and countries with a small radius can benefit from these advances. Here is a plan that i write up for my native country Jamaica, feel free to challenge my belief or change or alter this idea if you feel its flawed. Jamaicapopulation 1 milliona system of bio-agricultural plants can increase food production reducing hungerDependent on OIL..-utilizing solar energy would dramatically reduce dependency on oil- solar energy cars can be implementedHomes are insufficient and old - modern homes could reduce energy consumption and reduce dependency on oilPrimary source of electric is from coal plants- several turbine wind mills and solar plants could create sufficient energypeople travel miles on gas bustling cars to reach next town- a series of modern trains..solar could be used(this idea is in next 10 years, technology hasn't been invented yet)By doing this Jamaica can maintain its beauty and preserve the environment..also in addiction plastics, woods and other environmental troubling devices could be reduce with the current advancement on green products.its just an idea..but what do you think, i want to get my masters in engineer and return home to start development..are these idea absurd or can they be implemented world wide/?

  4. I am so glad that I read this article. I have developed a model for an investor and used my financial knowledge to achieve this. I am presenting next week and the content of your article fits in with my sentiments. My approach was not to be influenced by different role players in SA on how they do it, but working on the New way to make Solar successful. Currently confidential but just 1 snippet " Return on Investment comes last and Empowering people to pay the bill at full price comes first"

  5. ONLY WE HAVE TO FOCUS HOW TO REDUCE THE COST, HOW TO GET UNINTERUPTABLE POWER IN CLOUDY & NIGHT APPLICATION. IF YES THEN SUCESS FOR FUTURE GENERATION.

    1. In order to cut costs, I've changed my way of living. Instead of conventional electricity I've switched to Solar Energy to provide LED power (12V) to each room. Powered by a 140W PV panel, charging two 105AH batteries through a 12V 15A Charge Controller I can provide sufficient light to each room. The total power consumption for the whole house (243 LED's) is a mere 11A. This leaves more than sufficient current available for the Power Inverter to provide 220vAC to two television sets at night for 4-5 hours.
      Often the voltage of Tshwane in Pretoria/Centurion reaches in excess of 250VAC at night. The highest was 330VAC on 30 Aug 14 and 271VAC on 7 Aug 14. The local municipality will not replace or repair your electronic equipment that blows. Therefor make provision and install a decent voltmeter on your DB board together an alarm to warn you of over-voltage. Solar Energy has cut my Electrical Bill with up to R800 per month. It will take 18-21 months to cover my initial costs, thereafter I save all the way.
      Using a DC system for lights or converting your home to a 12/24/36 or 48VDC distribution has the other advantage that you do not need a COC for voltages lower than 50V when selling your house. Other advantages are no interruption in case of power failure, cable theft, etc as well as powering your generator battery, alarm system, electric fence, gate motor, charging your cellphone, etc.
      This is working for me. I hope it makes sense to you.

    2. I have found some problems not discussed regarding solar panels installed on the roof. I was told if your house happens to catch on fire and you have solar panels on your roof of your house, the fire department will not do anything to stop the fire with the solar panels on the roof.
      If this is true what else do we not know regarding solar panels that is not discussed with the homeowner.
      I would also like to be informed regarding all info not told to the homeowner regarding solar panels and include what is not warranted with it. Will it hold up in strong winds etc.

  6. SOLAR POWER VRS. OTHER E-SOURCES

    There is no such thing as free or absence of green house gases.
    It takes time, effort, fuel, byproducts, some kind of energy to forge all the equipment related to produce any thing man made which over time leaves waist or recyclable.

    No one has ever made an account of every single penny of cost from beginning to end of these two power entities to prove any advantage of either!

    Case in point;
    People constantly waist Electricity using exercise machines when instead they could exercise on a machine that makes Electricity!

    1. Or they can walk for free and use no man-made power or anything manufactured at great cost or waste (except for their Nike shoes!!!)

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