Problems With Solar Energy - Why It Is Not More Widely Used

The sun offers the most abundant, reliable and pollution-free power in the world. However, problems with solar energy, namely the expensive cost and inconsistent availability, have prevented it from becoming a more utilized energy source.

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Solar power makes up a tiny fraction of all power produced in North America, even though there are vast regions of the continent where there is an abundance of sunshine. To harvest more of this free energy, we need to discover new materials, develop new production techniques and solve the problem of storing energy when the sun isn't shining.

What is hampering solar power has everything to do with cost. It is five to eleven times more expensive to produce electricity from the sun than it is from coal, hydro or nuclear sources. The first problem is with the cost of the technology:

  • Solar panels use expensive semiconductor material to generate electricity directly from sunlight. Semiconductor factories need 'clean' manufacturing environments and are expensive to build & maintain.

  • The efficiency of solar cells currently ranges from around 20% up to a top range of around 40%, although this continues to improve. The rest of the sunlight that strikes the panel is wasted as heat. More efficient photovoltaic cells have been discovered (up to 43% efficient - see How efficient is solar energy? - but these are still in relatively new and are expensive to manufacture).

It will likely take decades to discover new materials and methods of making solar panels less expensive. How long it takes depends on how much time and money is invested into solar energy research both by government and private industry.

But even if the fundamental cost hurdles of the technology are overcome, there are still other issues:

  • Installing solar panels on a house is expensive and requires experienced people. These systems used fixed solar panels since alignment systems are too expensive for the average homeowner (see: How to determine the correct angle for solar panels). The initial investment outlay is a significant factor in why there is a lack of support for solar power from consumers.

  • Giant solar farms have been built in desert regions and have reduced the installation cost since a larger economy-of-scale is created (parts, material & installation people are in one location). But these large, inexpensive tracks of lands are found far from cities where the power is needed. Expensive transmission lines are needed to bring the power to a distant market.

  • Maintenance costs and time can add-up since every inch of a solar panel must be kept clean and clear of debris for them to operate at their most efficient. Their efficiency drops drastically even when a small portion is blocked by fallen debris or a film of dust.

The main problem with solar power that has stifled its use is the fact that energy production only takes place when the sun is shining. Large storage systems need to be developed to provide a constant and reliable source of electricity when the sun isn't shining at night or when a cloud goes overhead.

When solar panels are not producing energy, it takes longer to recoup their installation and maintenance cost.

Finding a Solution

  • Scientists need to discover more efficient semiconductors that are more efficient at electricity production. Doubling the efficiency of a panel will reduce the size of the array which will in turn means less space will be required to produce the same amount of power.

  • Engineers need to develop more efficient production techniques. Mass production of panels in efficient factories will help bring down production costs and make them cheaper for consumers to buy.

  • New transmission technology is needed to bring the clean energy to market. Energy storage systems will also help smooth out the production bumps caused by climate and atmospheric interruptions.

Until all of these problems with solar energy are overcome, the promise of pollution-free energy from the sun will continue to be only marginally used in our society.