Alternate Energy Sources: Is Solar Power Renewable?

People often wonder what alternative forms of energy can be used to reduce their environmental footprint on the earth. When asked, "Is solar power renewable", the answer isn't as straight-forward as you may think.

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Renewable power is any form of energy that is not depleted when used or harnessed for our needs. The sun is the source of all renewable energy including:

  • Solar power, which uses semiconductor materials to produce DC electricity directly from sunlight;

  • Solar heat, which uses passive solar collectors to heat air or water for use indoors. Industrial solar collectors can create steam to turn a turbine;

  • Wind energy to turn a turbine, since air currents are created by uneven solar heating of the earth's surface.

  • Tidal power - the gravitational pull of the sun, moon and earth causes the predictable fluctuation of the ocean level;

  • Hydro power - the sun evaporates water which then condenses and is stored behind a dam.

Is solar power renewable? With today's technology and manufacturing techniques, the only method that is currently economically-viable to capture the sun's energy is hydro power. The other methods do not yet produce enough power relative to the cost of the equipment.

Without affordable heat and electricity, our modern societies would be cast back into the 1800s when wood, coal and whale-oil were used to provide for our basic needs. To make solar power more prominent, the following considerations need to be addressed:

  • Location. Solar power is not available in every location and expensive transmissions lines are required to move the energy to population centers. Solar farms have been built in desert regions, but in northern areas or rainy locations, the equipment would remain underutilized for most of day or even entire portions of the year when sunlight is limited.

  • Size. Large tracts of lands are needed to build a solar installation that is large enough to produce cheap energy. Land is inexpensive in sparsely-populated areas like deserts, but expensive around urban and suburban areas. Installing solar collectors on city buildings and homes would only be an option if the efficiency of solar panels were to increase. Otherwise, the panels would not produce enough energy at price that would be affordable to the average person.

  • Reliability. Our society demands energy that is immediately available throughout the day. However, solar power is only as reliable as far as the climate will allow. When a cloud passes overhead, photovoltaic cells stop producing energy. Modern societies demand readily available power at all hours of the day.

    Solar batteries can be used to store excess energy when the solar panels aren't operating, but they are expensive, have limited life-spans and have environmental concerns of their own.

  • Aesthetics. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and based on the fact that most power plants are located outside of cities, today's society has voted against having these ugly industrial complexes in their back yards.

    Solar roof tiles (panels) are an option. However, to produce enough useful power, it would require the entire roof to be covered with solar panels in order to provide a household with sufficient energy to meet its needs. Neighbors may not be amenable to a shiny, metallic-looking roof in urban or suburban communities. Some communities also have architectural controls in place that may not permit a solar roof to be installed.

So to answer the question, "Is solar power renewable", the answer is yes - but the technology has yet not caught up with our current demands and lifestyle. Decades of research, trials and a new way of thinking will help solar power to become more popular and affordable for residential home use.