Welcome back to our alternative energy series, A Future Matter.
Today, we’re taking a look at the use of solar power as an alternative energy source and its viability as a long-term power source. Although solar energy is a concept that has only become publicly and commercially prominent over the last few decades, it’s one that has already been around for hundreds of years. The first solar collector was created back in 1767 by Horace-Benedict de Saussure, a simple insulated box covered with layered glass. In 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the “photovoltaic effect”, the scientific principle that makes the collection of solar energy possible. Solar energy is hardly a new idea, so let’s take a look at how it works.
How is solar energy harvested? The process begins with solar cells, panels of various sizes composed of multiple forms of silicon. These solar panels are created in such a way that one part of the cell has an excess of electrons within and another part has missing electrons. When these cells are bombarded by ambient sunlight, the photons from the sunlight collide with and excite the electrons within the cell. These electrons then flow into the part of the solar cell that lacks electrons already, creating an electrical current which travels to an inverter. The inverter receives the current and converts it to commercially useable electricity.
Example of a typical solar panel array
Now that we have an idea on how solar energy is made, let’s ask ourselves: What are the benefits of supporting global energy production with solar power?
One of the strongest arguments that can be made for solar power is its source. The electrical energy generated by solar panels comes from our Sun, the heart of our Solar System. Using the Sun for power generation makes it abundant, readily available and completely renewable for years to come, as it is estimated that the Sun will be around for at least another two billion years. Sustainability is a key factor in energy production and unlike traditional fossil fuels, solar is a method that can claim to be “infinitely renewable”.
Solar-generated electricity also has little to no impact on the environment. Solar cells have no moving parts and generate no harmful emissions, making them one of the more environmentally friendly options for power. It’s also very community friendly, as solar harvesting is both quiet and very low-maintenance compared to some alternatives, such as wind or nuclear. Solar panels can even be installed on people’s homes, or recreational vehicles, providing a simple, clean way to generate energy separate from big power grids. While the initial installation costs can be high, incorporating solar energy on a personal level can be a solid investment, providing free long-term power to the user.
Finally, solar power is very effective at providing energy to more remote locations where other sources may not be readily available. The cost and effort of extending existing electrical grids to remote locations can be quite high, making self-sustaining solar to be an excellent alternative. Additionally, satellites orbiting the planet right now already rely on solar panels as there’s no other easy way to generate the electrical energy they need to function in space.
A large solar farm in Haldimand County, Ontario
Solar production isn’t perfect however, so the question becomes: What are the drawbacks on increasing our dependence on solar power?
A big drawback for solar power is its dependence on ideal environmental conditions. Although sunlight is certainly abundant, solar panels need constant exposure to it in order to do their jobs, something that’s not possible at night and is greatly reduced when cloudy weather obscures the light. Pollution in the air can also interfere with solar harvesting, potentially harming collection in large, urban areas. Given our growing energy needs, it’s important to consider when dealing with a power source that isn’t producing power 100% of the time.
It’s also worth noting that although the act of collecting solar energy is less harmful to the environment than traditional fossil fuels, it’s not free from harmful elements. Solar cells are still manufactured and transported via conventional methods which can still indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, rare elements are used in the construction of certain thin-film solar cells, such as cadmium, mercury or gallium. In this respect, these cells are as dependent on limited materials as other power generation methods.
Finally, the startup cost for solar power can be fairly high, especially on a personal level. While the long-term pay off for harvesting solar energy can be good, be prepared to spend potentially thousands of dollars on acquiring and installing multiple solar-panels as well as batteries for energy storage (to ensure lasting energy during the night). While this may be more feasible on a professional level, or a recreational vehicle, installing solar panels on your home is still a costly venture.
In conclusion, the use of solar energy is another divisive issue. Solar energy is abundant, readily available for both personal and professional setups and arguably, the least harmful on the environment. However, it is also highly dependent on ideal locations and conditions as well as being costly to install. There are many pros and cons when discussing solar energy and it’s an important discussion to have.
What are your thoughts on the use of solar energy? Should we be increasing or decreasing our dependence on it? What are the potential applications of solar power going forward? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels.
For our next article, we’ll be taking a look at the benefits and drawbacks of wind power and its applications. We hope you find these articles informative and we have more to come!