Costs of Producing Solar Energy - Is It a Viable Alternative Energy Source?
The costs of producing solar energy on a
large scale are too high to make it a viable alternative power source. Existing solar power
plants are heavily subsided by the government (and by consumers) in the hope of spurring innovation
and to appease the public appetite for clean energy.
The technology is still decades away from becoming cost competitive and unfortunately,
there are no major breakthroughs foreseen in the near future.
SOLAR ENERGY ON A LARGE SCALE
The main reasons why it's not realistic for communities to rely on solar power include:
- High capital costs - Even if manufacturing techniques and economy-of-scales are
achieved, it takes a lot of equipment spread over large areas to concentrate enough sunlight
to produce enough worthwhile energy.
- Solar power can only be harvested during daylight hours. The expensive equipment
remains idle through dawn, dusk and at night and does not generate any revenue to help pay
for its cost. To make things worse, seasonal changes affect the number of daylight hours.
Cloudy weather also reduces the amount sunlight during the day.
- An energy storage system is required to smooth out power interruptions caused
by clouds, fog & dust. This adds more costs to the system.
- Expansive tracts of land are required to harvest enough solar energy. Cheap
land is located far from the population centers where the power will be used. Expensive
transmissions lines need to bring the power to market.
Future engineering solutions may help solar power to become more viable on a large scale
(i.e. better manufacturing techniques). But future discoveries in semiconductor materials
are needed to make solar cells more efficient (currently
energy efficiency is about 22%).
Still, the fundamental problems are that solar (and wind) power requires expensive
equipment and lots of land but does not produce constant power. This leads to idle
equipment, lower power reliability and therefore, higher production costs.
BIOMASS ENERGY PRODUCTION
Alternatively, agricultural land can be used to grow corn and sugar-cane which can be
converted into a burnable fuel (i.e. ethanol) to create steam to turn a turbine. However,
the costs associated with harvesting and fuel conversion are also exorbitant.
However, using land to grow fuel instead of food has a moral cost since crops
would be diverted to create fuel instead of going to feed hungry people.
SOLAR POWER ON A SMALL SCALE
For some smaller applications, solar energy can be used to reduce home heating and
electrical bills. People can take advantage of the sunlight to warm their home and
help offset their primary heating source.
(See: How does solar heating work?)
Installing solar panels to create electricity is also a viable solution for
homeowners but the payback period is quite long (5 20 years depending on the
power requirements, location & climate). The approximate costs of producing
solar energy on a small scale are as follows:
- Equipment Solar panels have come down in price but still can cost up to
$20,000 depending on your energy requirements.
- Installation Experienced personnel are needed to install the system.
Roof top installation or solar roof tiles add
greatly to the cost.
- Maintenance Since there are no moving parts, there are very few
ongoing costs. But the panels must be kept clean so access must be easy and convenient.
- Replacement costs Solar panels can last up to 25 to 30 years. However, if
the system were to grow in the future then a new charge controller and inverter would
- Replacing appliances to conserve energy To lower the cost of the initial
system, you can reduce your energy requirements by buying high-efficiency appliances.
These units are expensive.
The costs of producing solar energy have come down dramatically over the years but
they are still too high for most homeowners. Research and scientific discoveries
are still needed before solar power will become more wide-spread.