Solar energy is a renewable energy source that provides numerous benefits to everyday life. These benefits include helping to grow the food we eat, influencing our weather patterns and allowing us to generate clean and renewable electricity with the help of solar panels. Whilst many advantages apply, the process of using solar energy to generate electricity also has its drawbacks. In this article we take a look at the disadvantages of solar energy.
Disadvantages of Solar Energy
Below you will find many of the disadvantages associated with using solar energy to generate electricity.
1. Can’t be produced in the dark
Electricity generated from solar energy cannot be produced in the dark. Solar panels rely on significant levels of sunlight to operate efficiently and therefore are unable to produce electricity in the darkness of the night sky. This problem can be enhanced in countries that have shorter days at different times of the year but can also be mitigated by introducing a battery system that’s able to store any electricity generated by solar panels during the day for use during the night. This method is used in some domestic solar power systems (where the batteries can take up more space) but is more commonly seen in solar gadgets such as garden lighting.
It should be pointed out that some industrial solar power plants make use of a technology whereby a particular type of salt is super-heated to a molten state by solar energy during the day. During the night this salt remains molten (even though it cools significantly) and can still be used to generate electricity.
2. Has a low efficiency in the shade
Not only does the dark have an impact on the usefulness of solar panels but so does that of the shade. This can apply to localised shady spaces such as underneath a tree or close to a tall structure with the same principle applying during cloudy and/or foggy days and even areas experiencing pollution problems. Any physical object or atmospheric condition that reduces the level of sunlight reaching a solar panel will have an impact on its efficiency and as a result, not all locations are suitable for installations of such technologies. When pollution is present, this particular disadvantage is more of an issue with older solar cell components as newer designs integrate technologies to overcome the worst of these effects.
3. Has a low efficiency under both high and low temperatures
The efficiency of solar energy can also be impacted by temperature. A climate can be too cold or even too hot for a solar panel to operate efficiently as most panels have thresholds when it comes to operating temperatures. The science behind this is beyond the scope of this article but as a summary both high and low temperatures can reduce the photovoltaic effect; the ability of a semi-conductor to emit electrons when it absorbs photons from the suns rays.
4. The tilt and direction of solar panels needs to be optimised
When solar energy systems are installed, the tilt and direction of the panels should be optimised to generate the most electricity possible over the course of a year. This calculation is influenced by the time of day, the season and the latitude. All of this means that for part of the day and also part of the year, the placement of your solar panels won’t be optimised and therefore will be producing less electricity than they could with a simple adjustment to the direction and tilt.
More advanced installations can be fitted with a system that will track the sun over the course of a day by altering the direction and tilt of the solar panels. The same process can also apply based on the time of the year and therefore can alter the panels depending on what position the sun is in the sky. All this helps to mitigate the effect of having to manually adjust solar panels for peak performance, however, it is mainly used in solar farms due to the additional cost and engineering requirement.
5. High upfront cost and long return on investment
One of the main disadvantages is the high cost of the equipment used to harness solar energy. Domestic solar panels still remain a costly option for generating electricity for your home whilst large scale solar power plants can cost vast amounts to build. Although installing solar power technologies requires a high upfront investment, solar panels will often deliver a return on investment (ROI) after a set space of time due to reduced energy bills and the possibility of selling excess electricity back to the grid. This process however can take many years to complete and some systems (especially those involving older technologies) will never see a return on investment.
It’s important to note that some governments who are pushing for more widespread use of solar energy may be offering grants for both home owners and businesses who are looking to invest in their own solar power installation. You should always check with your local authority or government for any available schemes as these can knock hundreds if not thousands of dollars off the initial investment you might require.
6. Solar arrays require a large surface area
In order to generate acceptable levels of electricity, a solar power installation will often require several panels set up in series which is commonly referred to as a “solar array”. This can take up a large surface area and is often seen as a disadvantage in areas where space is at a premium. In most cases, home owners will install solar arrays to their roof which often has enough space to accommodate such systems. The surface area required for a solar power station can be vast and this contributes towards the cost as more land needs to be purchased.
7. Low power output compared to other options
When it comes to large scale solar power stations, it’s often noted that the power output of such installations is often significantly less than that of power stations running on fossil fuels. Whilst we can’t expect a solar power station to exceed the capacity of traditional thermal based power stations, they still offer a viable solution to generating significant levels of electricity that is both clean and renewable.
8. The NIMBY effect
The NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect can also apply to solar panels. Whilst this is more relevant when it comes to wind turbines, solar panels can still receive objections from neighbours who see solar panels attached to a roof as an eyesore. Unlike wind turbines, solar panels don’t produce sound pollution and therefore the NIMBY effect should be less, however, the problem still exists.
More modern implementations of solar energy technologies (such as solar roof tiles) are helping to mitigate this effect by making solar panels more aesthetically pleasing through the seamless integration with a building.
So there we have some of the main disadvantages of using solar energy to generate electricity for our homes and businesses. Although the negatives mentioned above may put the majority of people off the installation of solar panels, the advantages of these systems can far outweigh the disadvantages.