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Debate: Solar energy

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Should plans to fight global warming prioritize solar energy?

Background and context

Solar energy refers to the utilization of the radiant energy from the Sun. Solar power is used interchangeably with solar energy, but refers more specifically to the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either by photovoltaics and concentrating solar thermal devices, or by one of several experimental technologies such as thermoelectric converters, solar chimneys or solar ponds. Solar energy has become increasingly attractive in recent years as a possible solution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. This is because it emits not greenhouse gases in the process of generating electricity. It is effectively a 0-emission source of energy. There are, however, critics of solar energy.
As with the entire debate regarding solving global warming, the questions raised relate largely to the viability of solar energy as compared to other alternative forms of energy. The running question is whether governments and citizens should prioritize solar energy in plans to fight global warming over sources of energy. This debate, therefore, relates largely to comparing the pros and cons of solar energy to the pros and cons of other alternative forms of energy. The debate regarding solar energy is framed by numerous questions: Is solar energy valuable in reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Is it truly a 0-emission source of electricity? Is the manufacture of solar cells carbon neutral or does it involve the use of many fossil fuels? What back-up sources of energy does solar energy use for when the sun isn't shinning? Coal? Are solar cells efficient? Are there any environmental risks associated with the use of cadmium in solar cells? Does solar technology require too much land? Is this an environmental, agricultural, and/or economic/costs problem? Is the disposal of solar energy batteries a environmental concern? What are the economics of solar power? Is it viable in the market place? Is the technology advancing quickly enough or slowly compared to other energy alternatives? Is solar energy supply consistent enough (no production at night)? Is location and climate (sunny weather) a major constraint? Can the electric grid handle the introduction of massive amounts of solar-generated electricity? Can solar energy generally supply massive quantities of electricity and replace significant quantities of coal production as well as other dirty forms of electricity production?

See Wikipedia's article on solar energy for more background.

Contents

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Global warming: Is solar power key to reducing emissions and fighting global warming?

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Yes

  • Fast growing solar industry can dramatically cut emissions now The solar industry is competitive, bullish, and growing exponentially. BCC research believed it will grow from $13 billion currently to $32 billion in 2012. This means that solar energy is currently viable, and is replacing dirty forms of energy at an exponential pace now. This compares favorably to much more distant and uncertain forms of renewable energy. Why invest in these other renewables, when solar energy is ready to cut emissions exponentially starting now?
  • Accounting for production energy, solar power still slashes emissions The fundamental quantity here is the energy payback time, i.e. the time, after which the system will have produced enough energy to cover its own construction. For crystalline Silicon solar cells in central Europe energy payback time is around 4 years. With the usual guaranteed lifetime of 25 years, this leaves plenty of time for the c-Si cells to actually produce electricity.
  • Producing solar cells need not use fossil fuel energy. While the production of solar cells does use energy, there is no need for this energy to come from fossil fuel sources. It can, in fact, come from solar power. Solar power can, therefore, produce solar panels, and be 100% 0-emission from production to electricity generation. It should also be noted that "back-up" sources of energy needed not be fossil-fuel based.


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No

  • Solar power cannot produce enough energy to replace coal Coal is the primary fuel for generating electricity around the world. Solar power cannot realistically produce enough energy anytime soon to replace this massive source of electricity. It is incapable, therefore, of making a serious dent in coal-electricity production and the related greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Solar cell production requires significant energy, adds emissions. The most commonly used material in photovoltaic solar energy systems is crystalline silicon. Using this material for solar applications requires that it be highly refined. This process uses a significant amount of energy, often derived from fossil fuels, which can offsets emissions reductions associated with solar energy.
  • Inconsistent solar energy requires back-up sources (carbon-based). Because solar energy cannot supply energy at night and is dependent on good weather, it requires back-up sources of energy to fill the gaps. These back-up sources are often coal-based, since coal is the predominant fuel driving electricity production. This means that solar power's inconsistency has negative consequences for the environment.


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Environment/general: Is solar energy generally environmentally friendly?

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Yes

  • Solar energy does not damage air quality. It does not pollute our air by releasing carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide or mercury into the atmosphere like many traditional forms of electrical generation.
  • Solar power is the most direct form of using the sun's energy. Almost all modern sources of energy use the sun's energy, but in a very indirect way. Oil is the byproduct of organic matter that grows via the power of the sun. Wind energy is the product of the sun causing thermal variables in the earth's atmosphere. Yet, why not just exploit the sun's energy directly with photovoltaic cells? This is more efficient.
  • Solar energy is renewable. Unlike carbon-based fuels and other non-renewable energy resources, solar energy will never run out for humans. This fact has very important implications. Solar energy can supply humans with an abundant amount of 0-emission energy thousands and even millions of years into the future.
  • Solar panals can be put in the desert.Solar panals can be put in the middle of the desert, to avoid clearing rainforests and arable land.
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No

  • Solar panels contain cadmium, which is environmentally hazardous. Solar panels themselves contain cadmium, a silvery metal that is toxic in the environment. While solar panels are durable, eventually they will wear out and need to be disposed of. The toxins in these metals can subsequently be released into the environment.
  • Land-intensive solar power incentivizes clearing land, ecosystems Because the sun's rays are diffuse, solar panels must occupy substantial territory to generate any significant quantities of power. As a result, solar energy is land-intensive, and creates a pressure to clear land of trees and vegetation to make way for solar panels. Owners of solar panels on home rooftops may also have an incentive to cut-down trees that are blocking solar panels from the sun's rays. This is a significant ecological threat.


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Environment/land-use: Does solar energy use a reasonable amount of land?

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Yes

  • Decentralized solar power does not take up much land. Solar power is not the same as coal, nuclear, or other forms of energy where large-scale industrial plants are created. Solar energy, rather, is usually decentralized in households and smaller solar farms in local communities. This makes the land-use associated with solar energy very flexible.
  • Deserts are possibly suitable for the deployment of solar farms. DESERTEC Foundation Covering only a fraction of the area of deserts with solar cells with moderate efficiency would provide enough energy for world's energy needs.
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No

  • Solar energy requires too much land, damaging the environment The sun light and its energy hit the earth's surface in a diffuse manner. In other words, not much sunlight hits a square meter on the earth's surface. In order to gather significant quantities of this energy, a large swath of territory must be covered by solar panels. This makes solar energy land-intensive, which creates pressures to clear lands of trees for solar panels. This can eliminate important carbon sinks and have a negative impact on global warming.


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Environment/batteries: Are the environmental issues with the batteries used acceptable?

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Yes

  • The disposal of solar energy batteries can be regulated. While batteries can pose an environmental risk, it is very simple to impose disposal regulations on the suppliers and users of solar energy systems.
  • Long-life of solar energy systems reduce battery disposal. The disposal of batteries is very infrequent with solar energy because these batteries and solar energy systems last for so long, which is partly a function of the fact that solar energy involves no moving parts.


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No

  • Solar power is intermittent so must be stored. Because solar energy doesn't produce at night and is dependent on good weather, it produces in fits and starts. This means that it must be stored, so that it can be supplied to the markets when needed.
  • Solar power stores energy in environmentally hazardous batteries. Solar power is generally stored in lead-acid batteries. These batteries contain lead and sulphuric acid which are toxic to air, soil, water, and marine life. While 98% of the materials in dead batteries are recoverable, they would require require greater regulations that do not yet exist and which may be difficult to enforce.


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Economics: Is solar energy economically sound?

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Yes

  • High oil prices make solar more competitive. High oil prices in recent years have made solar power much more price competitive.
  • Solar energy is free after the initial investment. Once installed, there are no recurring costs involved with Solar Energy.
  • Solar energy is abundant. Every minute, enough energy arrives at planet Earth to meet human energy demands for a year. It is, therefore, the most abundant energy source available to humans. This abundance makes it an economic gem.
  • The recovery/payback period can be very short. This is the length of time it takes to begin making profits on solar energy.
  • Solar energy panels can be added to meet growing needs. If a household or business demands more energy, it can always adds solar panels. Solar energy is easily scalable in this way.
  • Solar energy creates interesting employment opportunities. The employment opportunities created by solar power are interesting because they involve a high degree of interaction between the employee and communities that are demanding solar energy. That is, solar business transactions occur at a local level in face-to-fact deals and sales. More centralized forms of energy production (coal, oil, nuclear) entail employment opportunities that often isolate employees in far off places in which they have very little interaction with the communities that they are actually serving.


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No

  • Sunlight is relatively weak energy source because rays are "diluted". Compared to fossil fuels, sunlight is a weak energy source because the radiation strength is "diluted" by the time the rays reach earth. This makes its collection more difficult and expensive. In general, more high technology, equipment, and land-area are required with solar energy to produce the same amount of energy as other resources. This makes it more challenging and expensive.
  • While sunlight is free, the technology for capturing it is expensive. It is misleading to say that sunlight energy is free. The price of energy resources have always been determined by cost of extracting the energy and transforming it into a consumable form. Indeed, oil is "free" to those that discover it, but it is sold at a price related to the expense of extracting and refining the good. Solar energy is the same. The price of sun energy is found in the expense of the technology and other factors involved in extracting it and transforming it into a consumable form. It is not "free".
  • Solar panels cannot produce energy at night like other alternatives. Coal-electricity and hydroelectricity can both operate 24/7. Solar power, however, can only operate during the day-time. This means that solar power's energy yield is smaller relative to the capital investment.
  • Clouds and smog undermine solar energy unlike other energy sources. If it is cloudy, the output of solar energy can be reduced by over ninety percent. This means that solar energy is entirely dependent on good weather, an unpredictable variable that is economically unattractive.
  • Managing solar power's inconsistency is inefficient and costly. Because solar power is very inconsistent, it must be managed heavily. Someone has to constantly monitor solar energy's production, engaging back-up sources when supply is low and storing energy when supply is high. This is inefficient and costly. And, wherever solar power is built, an auxiliary source of power must be built as well. This is costly.
  • Solar panels convert energy less efficiently than other energy sources. Solar panels collect approximately 8 to 15% of the energy that reaches them, while coal-powered plants achieve about 35% efficiency.
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Electric grid: Is solar energy compatible with electric grids?

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Yes

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No

  • Inconsistent solar energy is a challenge for electric grids. Electric grids must physically match electricity supply and demand. This means that electricity sources are best for the grid when they are consistent. Solar energy, however, is inconsistent, making it less compatible with the fundamental principles of electric grids.


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Location: Does solar energy have locational benefits?

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Yes

  • Solar energy is generated where it is needed. Many forms of energy are generated in a central location and than distributed out to consumers. Coal electric generation is done in this way. Solar energy, however, can be much more decentralized, in which solar panels are placed on a house and generate energy right there.
  • Solar Energy avoids problems of fuel recovery and transportation. Solar energy does not require fuel, so does not contribute to the cost and problems of the recovery and transportation of fuel. It also does not require that someone constantly pump fuel into an engine.
  • Solar energy can operate independently. A Solar Energy system can operate entirely independently, not requiring a connection to a power or gas grid at all. Systems can therefore be installed in remote locations (like holiday log cabins), making it more practical and cost-effective than the supply of utility electricity to a new site.
  • "Tracking mount" solar panels can solve the problem of the sun's positioning. "Tracking mount" solar panels can track the sun so as to optimize the production of energy from solar panels at all hours of the day.


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No

  • Solar energy production depends on the weather. Solar energy production can be influenced by the presence of clouds or pollution in the air.
  • Solar power cannot produce at night, cutting yields in half Solar energy production depends on the sun's positioning during the day. And, obviously, at night-time, solar panels produce no energy. This inconsistency is problematic for energy grids that rely on consistency.
  • Soler power energy production varies with the seasons. The strength of the sun varies with the seasons. This inconsistency can be problematic.
  • Solar power is not well suited for snowy climates. Snow can gather on solar panels in snowy climates. And, the slanted roofs that typify snowy climates are not ideal for solar panels; flat roofs are ideal. And, often in extremely cold climates, solar energy systems have to be dismantled during the cold season. This is costly.
  • Not all houses are oriented well for using solar energy. Many houses have roofs that face in a direction that does not work well with the course that the sun takes in the sky. This means that these houses cannot convert as much sun light to energy.
  • Solar panels must be cleaned where deposits obstruct the sun. Deposits of varying kind can collect on solar panels and reduce the amount of sunlight that can be converted into energy. Heavy rain in some regions, for example, contain large amounts of calcium which can build up over time on solar panels into a white crust that can substantially obstruct the amount of light that enters the solar panel and that is converted into energy. This means that solar panels must be constantly cleaned, which is a hassle as well as costly.
  • Solar panels can be damaged by extreme weather such as hail. Large hail storms can release baseball size hail. Solar panels are vulnerable to such extreme weather.


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In cities: Is solar energy suited for cities?

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Yes

  • Solar farms can supply electricity to cities but exist elsewhere. While it may be the case that solar energy systems are not well suited for crowded cities, it should be noted that neither are dams or coal-electricity plants. Solar energy farms can exist outside of a city, and yet supply it with massive amounts of energy.


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No

  • Solar energy is less effective in cities for various reasons. Smog, buildings, and trees all act to block sunlight in cities, reducing the amount of solar energy that can be produced there.


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Community: What are the local effects of solar energy?

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Pro

  • Solar power operates silently. Almost all other forms of energy are known for creating noise in the extraction of the resource, its use, or its transportation. Solar is very unique in producing no noise at all.
  • Solar energy does not release offensive smells. Many energy resources release a smell into the atmosphere. Coal, oil, and gasoline all release an odor into the atmosphere. Solar does not.
  • Decentralized, low-capital solar is better for small enterprise. Because solar energy systems can be decentralized and require less capital to start, they can be employed by smaller enterprises such as family businesses. This can help combat trends toward large energy company monopolies as well as stimulating local economies.
  • Solar involves democratic community-based decision-making. Because solar is low-capital, decentralized, and integrated into communities, it is often also controlled by the members of communities. In this way, communities become very involved in the decision-making surrounding solar power.


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Con

  • Solar farms can deface natural landscapes. Solar farms encounter a similar problem as wind farms. Both require using significant swaths of territory. This can damage aesthetic appeal of natural landscapes and frustrate communities that desire to maintain that appeal. It can even have a detrimental effect on tourism industries in communities that depend on such natural landscapes.


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Personal use: Is solar energy well suited for personal use?

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Yes

  • Solar applications to households are usually simple. Household The household needs are of low scale such as cooking food, heating water, backup lights etc. So these can easily be fulfilled by solar energy as the apparatus or arrangement for such a requirement would not be very large and too costly. Moreover, it will be much more environment friendly than the other conventional sources of energy.
  • Removing solar panels is as easy as installing them. It is wrong to argue that it is too difficult to remove solar panels, for maintenance or to transport them to a new household. They are as easy to remove and transport as they are to deliver and install.


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No

  • Solar panels are hard to move when a person moves homes. Solar panels are heavy, permanent installations. They are nearly impossible to move if one decides to buy a new home. This means that an individual's expensive investment may end up going to benefit the new owner of that individual's house.
  • If a roof needs replacing, solar panels must be removed. Because solar panels are large and heavy, the removal of them for roofing repair is either impossible or expensive (as expensive as having them installed in the first place). And, it entails the risk of damaging the panels.


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Oil dependencies: Does solar energy help lower foreign dependencies?

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Yes

  • Solar energy reduces nations dependence on oil/foreign oil. The use of Solar Energy helps reduce nations' dependence on foreign and/or centralized sources of energy, and so contributes to a sustainable future.
  • Alternative clean fuels generated from solar power reduces dependence on oil Hydrogen produced by solar power from the electrolysis of water is a emission free fuel that can be used to power cars and other vehicles. Moreover, hydrocarbons can be produced from pure hydrogen, e.g. by Fischer-Tropsch process.
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No

  • Solar electricity cannot significantly reduce dependencies on oil. Solar electricity will not replace oil because it is electricity. Oil is not generally used to produce electricity and solar electricity would generally not replace the main kinds of modern uses of oil (ie. vehicles and transportation).
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Vs. nuclear: How does solar energy compare to nuclear energy?

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Yes

  • Nuclear power has the problem of disposing of radioactive waste. Nuclear energy has the highly controversial challenge of producing nuclear waste, which must be disposed of in some form, which entails long-term environmental risks. Solar energy does not suffer from this challenge.
  • Solar energy is safer than nuclear energy. Nuclear energy has two major risks: radioactive poisoning (particularly of nuclear energy plant workers) and of nuclear plant meltdowns. Solar energy does not suffer from any safety issues.
  • Solar energy is low-capital and more decentralized. Nuclear energy is very high capital and requires a high degree of expertise. This makes it a very centralized, big-business operation. Solar is the exact opposite in this regard, requiring very little capital and having the capacity to be highly decentralized to the local level where non-expert individuals can install and manage solar panels.
  • Increased use of nuclear power increases risks of nuclear proliferation. Obtaining suitable fissile materials is the most problematic step in building nuclear weapons. Because of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, nuclear power cannot serve as a viable global power source; the technology and materials for production can be as easily used for power generation as for building nuclear weapons.
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No

  • Nuclear plants can produce a larger amount of energy than solar. Nuclear fission and reactors can generate a much larger amount of energy than the typical solar farm.
  • Nuclear power is a more potent and efficient source of energy. A very small amount of Uranium can produce a massive quantity of energy. This compares favorably to solar power, in which a very large amount of sunlight is required to produce a much smaller quantity of energy. Nuclear energy is more efficient in this way.
  • Nuclear energy does not require as much land as solar. Sun light is diffuse. This means that solar panels must take up a large swath of territory in order to absorb all the energy. Consuming so much land is problematic environmentally, agriculturally, and economically.
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Vs. "clean coal": How does solar energy compare to "clean coal"?

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Yes

  • Solar energy is a 0-emission source; coal is not. Solar energy does not burn any fuel to generate electricity and so does not emit any greenhouse gases. This compares favorably to "clean coal", which burns coal and emits significant quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, albeit less than ordinary coal-electricity generation.


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No

  • Solar energy cannot produce enough energy to replace coal. Coal is the primary fuel for generating electricity around the world. Solar power cannot realistically produce enough energy anytime soon to replace this massive source of electricity. It is incapable, therefore, of making a serious dent in coal-electricity production and the related greenhouse gas emissions.


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Pro/con sources

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Yes


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No


See also

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