Solar power is a valuable energy source that can be used to heat buildings and produce electricity. It is the most abundant, fastest, and cheapest energy source on earth, and it generates minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Countries around the world are planning to achieve net-zero emissions in the upcoming decades and solar energy could be the secret weapon to reach this ambitious goal.
Ancient Egyptians were the first people known to use the energy from sunlight to heat their homes. Fast forward to today, societies around the world have developed innovative technologies that allow us to turn the sun’s energy into electricity that powers heating and cooling systems, transportation, lighting, and ventilation, just to name a few. China is by far the largest investor, but the United States, Japan, Australia, and India are also betting on this incredible resource.
Before we move on to some of the advantages and disadvantages of solar, it is worth answering a question: how does solar energy work?
What is Solar Energy and How Does It Work?
Humans install solar panels in places where they are mostly exposed to the sunlight, for example on the roof of a house. The sun shines directly on so-called photovoltaic (PV) panels, which contain cells that can capture the sunlight’s energy. This energy generates electrical charges that move around the cells, causing electricity to flow.
Believe it or not, solar panels can even work on cloudy days when the sun is not visible at all!
Advantages of Solar Energy
Solar is a renewable energy source: As the name suggests, solar power is a resource that never runs out. Renewable energy sources are not only cleaner but also cheaper and easier to produce than any fossil fuel.
Solar energy is immensely abundant: In fact, solar is the most abundant energy source on the planet and throughout the years, we managed to develop innovative technologies that could allow us to depend entirely on solar for the rest of our existence. Surprisingly enough, an hour and a half of sunlight that reaches the planet’s surface generates enough power to meet all of humanity’s energy consumption for an entire year!
Solar Technologies Are Getting More Efficient: Over the years, scientists have made some important advances in the development of solar technologies, improving the efficiency of solar panels, which can now last up to 30 years!
Solar Panels Are Getting Cheaper: While the cost of panels itself is the most critical part of the overall equation, solar is definitely a cheap source of power that can considerably lower the electricity bill in the long run.
Solar Life Cycle Generates Minimal Greenhouse Gas Emissions: solar power produces no emissions during generation itself and it has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels.
Disadvantages of Solar Energy
Solar Energy is Still Expensive for Households: Did we not just say that solar energy is getting cheaper? Well, it is true. However, purchasing a solar system requires a significant amount of money at the beginning to cover the costs of panels, inverter, batteries, wiring, and the installation of the system itself.
Solar Energy is Weather Dependent: this technology is not equally efficient around the world. While solar power can be generated on a cloudy day, some level of daylight is still required in order to capture the sun’s energy, and the amount of energy that can be produced varies greatly depending on the amount and quality of direct sunlight that the panels receive as well as the size, number, and locations of the panels.
Solar Power Plants Are Not the Most Environmentally Friendly Option: First and foremost, solar power plants require space. Another factor to consider is the management and disposal of dangerous materials such as metals and glass needed to build some components of solar infrastructure. Indeed, producing them pollutes the environment.
Should We Still Use Solar Energy?
Solar energy is an incredibly valuable and infinite resource that can play a huge role in the world by helping to reach the goal of zero-net emissions that many countries have set. This renewable resource, along with all others, certainly has undeniable potential and it is still a better alternative to environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels, beyond being the best chance we have at stopping global warming.
Martina is an environmental journalist based in Hong Kong. She holds two Bachelor's degrees, one in Journalism and one in Translation and Interpreting Studies as well as a Master's degree in International Development. Passionate about writing and languages, her interests include sustainability and the role of public policy in environmental protection, especially in developing countries. She has extensive experience working as a journalist and in 2020, she joined the outreach team of the United Nations Global Communication Department. She currently works for Earth.Org and is the website's main writer and editor.