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Solar Energy - Are Our Expectations Too High?

Since the mid 1960’s we have been hearing all the glorified reasons why solar energy is going to be the undisputed champion of cheap, renewable energy production that will save us all from the potential negative environmental effects of other energy sources such as oil, coal and nuclear energy.

But now that a full 40 years have gone by since we originally started touting the reliable effectiveness of a near endless supply of safe, clean energy available to us directly from our closest star, it’s time to take a fair assessment of whether solar energy has truly lived up to expectations and actually proven itself to be the opulent boon it was predicted to be.

On the positive side, solar energy "is" a renewable, alternative energy source that is clean, sustainable, renewable, and does not rely on the usage of fossil fuels for its production, nor does it have any harmful carbon emissions. So a major plus is the idea that it is fully renewable and does not pollute the atmosphere or contribute to global warming.

However, one must ask oneself, if this energy source is so clearly advantageous, then why we are still talking about it as if it is still a concept out of a science fiction thriller awaiting us somewhere in the mid to distant future. The truth is, the enormous cost of the technology is high prohibitive.

Not only are the photo cells expensive, but the initial cost to set up even a marginally decent sized solar farm is simply still astronomical, compared to other sources of energy. This is why solar energy still hasn’t taken off all across the globe as other technologies such as “wind power” and numerous experiments with organic fuels manufactured out of waste products such as ethanol can be started with much lower cost to efficiency ratios.

One huge advantage to the concept of a more diverse, dispersed grid of local production near neighborhood residences is the fact that solar energy production is the quietest of all forms of energy production, including wind. So besides being safe and clean, solar is very quiet.

However, to be perfectly honest, a negative factor that must be considered is during the actual manufacturing of the solar panels and the entire energy grid that the electricity travels through. We need to account for all waste products that arise from the actual building, transportation and setting up of the solar energy technology. This means that while pro solar pundits tout this as a clean energy, there actually is waste created and damage done to the environment building and setting up solar energy.

One of the most positive “pros” in the argument for solar energy is the ability to harness electricity in far removed and remote locations that cannot be effectively linked to a national grid. One obvious scenario is in outer space, where satellites are powered by high efficiency solar cells.

But an equally valid “con” argument against solar energy is the very fact that many locations are simply not feasible for the creation of solar power. Solar energy is only able to be generated during daylight hours, which means for approximately half of each day, solar panels are utterly useless.

Obviously A huge advantage is that sunlight is 100% free and is always consistently shining somewhere on the surface of earth, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

However it’s equally true that seasons and weather greatly affect the efficiency of solar cells to produce electricity. This means, solar energy simply isn’t predictable, efficient, or powerful enough to reliably provide a substantial portion of our energy needs and there must continually be strategies to survive “down time” with sufficient energy storage and back up generators.

On a high note, solar systems are very low maintenance, have very few moving parts, and require very little monitoring during everyday operation.

The down side is that solar panels are very easily, negatively affected by factors such as pollution, so they don’t hold up well in cities and are considered an eyesore in residential areas where everybody would love the benefits of using the electricity, but when it comes to proposals to build a solar facility, people tend to say “Not In My Neighborhood!”

This means the additional expense and inconvenience of having to build them way out in the middle of no-where and then create a large-scale grid to effectively get the power to cities and neighborhoods that the “solar farms” weren’t able to be built in, in the first place.

So we see some real positive opportunities for solar to be an important part of our energy strategy for the future, but is it the ultimate “savior” that everyone predicted it would be 40 years ago? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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  • Anonymous on January 13 2010 said:
    We should not judge solar by what it is today. Sure we need to forge ahead at any cost but the solar of the future will have nothing in common with what we are debating today. Today's current solar technology will be obsolete.

    Ray @ Renewable Energy TV

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