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Five Benefits of Solar Energy

Solar Energy Benefits

Although some form of solar power has been available for decades, the technology has only recently gained mainstream acceptance and attracted the interest of big-time utility companies. On a per-kilowatt basis, solar power remains expensive relative to conventional sources of energy like coal and natural gas. Nevertheless, its overall cost continues to shrink at a rapid rate. As solar power becomes an increasingly important component of the country’s “energy mix,” it’s worth taking a look at five major benefits of solar power.

1. Changing Relationships with Public Utilities

Homeowners and business owners who install solar panels on their property enjoy more equitable relationships with their local utilities. Whereas conventional arrangements between utilities and their customers require the latter to be wholly dependent on the former, solar power users gain a measure of independence from their utilities. Even if their solar panels don’t produce all of the power that they need on a daily basis, they’ll need to buy less conventional power. If they produce more power than they require, their utilities may actually pay them for it at a fluctuating wholesale rate. For cash-strapped homeowners, this can turn into a significant source of revenue.

2. Healthy Financial Incentives

Along with various state agencies, the federal government offers attractive subsidies for private individuals who install solar panels or solar heating devices in their homes. In certain jurisdictions, generous subsidies may be available for businesses as well. Generally speaking, these incentives allow solar power users to claim tax credits in proportion to the amount of generation capacity that they install on their property. This reduces solar power start-up costs and increases the profitability of the technology.

3. Minimal Environmental Impact

Although the production of solar panels does require some inputs of raw materials and energy, solar power’s environmental impact is minimal. The technology produces none of the carbon, methane or particulate emissions that fossil fuels emit, and it doesn’t demand large-scale mining or drilling operations. Since panel arrays can be placed on rooftops or in isolated desert areas, solar power’s physical footprint is manageable as well.

4. Labor-Intensive Production Regimes

The solar power industry’s “innovation engine” has resulted in the creation of tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade alone. Although proponents of conventional energy technologies argue that the solar industry destroys more fossil fuel-related jobs than it creates, this is a misleading claim. After all, solar panel production is just a small facet of an overall industry that demands contributions from installation technicians, salespeople, battery-storage designers and other key players.

5. Geopolitical Benefits

Since the dawn of the fossil fuel age, the United States’ reliance on unstable or hostile countries to supply oil, gas and other energy resources has caused plenty of trouble. Indeed, the country’s political and business leaders are often forced to make unsavory compromises with shady or dangerous parties in order to guarantee steady energy imports. Since all of the solar power that the United States needs can be generated within the country’s own borders, the technology has the potential to eliminate this less-than-ideal reliance on imperfect actors. In the long run, such a development could increase the economic and physical security of every American citizen.

Putting Things in Perspective

Solar power shouldn’t be mistaken for a cure-all that’s capable of single-handedly solving all of the world’s social, environmental and political ills. However, it’s a valuable technology that’s increasingly competitive with traditional sources of energy. Moreover, its benefits are undeniable. In the future, solar power is all but assured to have a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impact on our society.

Photo Credit: Solar Energy Benefits/shutterstock

Steve Wright's picture

Thank Steve for the Post!

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Discussions

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on July 27, 2013

I’m not too sure about these benefits…

1. The only way in which homeowners can get some degree of independence from utilities is by installing battery-backup PV systems which, at $8-10/Wp, is completely uneconomical. 

2. Generous solar feed-in tariffs tend to bite back sooner than expected. Many European countries offer good examples, e.g. the increasing political debate about the high costs of the Energiewende in Germany and the retroactive feed-in tariff cuts in Spain, Greece and others. 

3. Solar PV has significant environmental impacts including CO2 from embedded energy, rare-earth mining and e-waste disposal. More importantly though, if solar PV ever becomes a major player, the bulk of the impact will come from all the infrastructure needed to counter the intermittent and non-dispatchable nature of solar PV (lower efficiency fossil plants, large-scale storage, HVDC transmission etc.). 

4. Sure, solar PV is quite labour intensive. That is an important part of the reason why BoS costs are falling very slowly and keeping PV prices uncompetitive despite the currently unsustainably low module prices. Anyway, jobs come from economic growth which comes from cheap energy. Heavily subsidized expensive PV energy is definitely not a sustainable job creation strategy. 

5. Oil is the primary energy security concern of the US. Solar PV will not displace significant quantities of oil for many decades into the future. 

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on July 27, 2013

1. $8-10/Wp, is uneconomical

– it is also falling rapidly

 

2. Financial incentives will not be needed in even the mid term future

 

3. “rare-earth mining and e-waste disposal.” 

– several solar technologies are moving away from rare earth and toward nontoxic, earth abundant

“infrastructure needed to counter the intermittent…”

– Unless, of course, ever cheaper and ever more easily integrated storage solutions come to fruition, something that is seeming more like a certainty every day

 

4. “…solar PV is quite labour intensive… …the reason why BoS costs are falling very slowly and keeping PV prices uncompetitive”

– Solar is becaoming easier to install. Plug and play systems are not far off.

 

5. True. It is in the developing world where the solar revolution will first leave its mark. However, eventually it will transform the developed world as well

I believe solar will dominate by the last quarter of the century.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on July 27, 2013

“… the solar industry destroys more fossil fuel-related jobs than it creates…” [emphasis added]

Actually, the claim is that expensive energy (including solar or wind with energy storage) is a net destroyer of jobs in general, because more money spent on energy means less money can be spent on other things.  Every dollar spent makes roughly the same number of jobs; the main difference is what we get for the money, and whether the money is leaving the country (i.e. expensive middle-Eastern oil or Chinese PV panels versus cheap Australian uranium).

“… its [solar’s] benefits are undeniable.”

Sure, solar has benefits relative to coal, and perhaps even gas.  But while in principle, limited solar would be a useful addition to an all nuclear generation porfolio, the primary impact of the solar industry so far has been to be a facilitator and refuge of anti-nuclearism.  And anti-nuclearism is the main factor that keeps us addicted to fossil fuel.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on July 27, 2013

 

Steve I think your post-up is over enthusiastic and turns the blind eye to negative points.

1. Changing Relationships with Public Utilities:

 It just seems to me right now that Solar PV owners pass on costs to non-owners and the tax-payer.  I am not sold on the innate benefit of Changing Relationships with the Utilities. I simply desire cheaper power and I don’t really care where it comes from.

2. Healthy Financial Incentives: Yep, Benefit of the few at the expense of the Tax-Payer

 

3. Minimal Environmental Impact: Imagibe if every one had PVs, how much lead and toxic materials would they recycle every 25-30 years.


I’ll stop right here.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on July 27, 2013

The ‘Geopolitical Benefits’ of solar are negligible.  Since essentially all U.S. electric power net imports and power generation fuels (natural gas) net imports come from Canada, this subject only applies to petroleum oil imports.  Petroleum’s use today only amounts to 0.5% of total U.S. power generation fuels consumed by the Electric Power sector.  The use of petroleum for power generation today is generally limited to isolated and off-the-grid industrial/commercial operations or as an emergency-backup to other fuels such as temporary natural gas supply disruptions.  Today, solar only displaces natural gas consumption in peaking and intermediate power plants required to maintain power grids stabilities, which are subject to the performance affects of non-dispatchable, variable solar power generation capacity.

jagdish bidani's picture
jagdish bidani on July 27, 2013

let us stop being hypocrats in the self interest of making people dependant on govt and collaborating utilities. let us appreciate and implement the coplementary role of solar power and work to create imlementable economic and simple adoptable routes. thanks this is jcbidani@gmail.com  09313257211 india.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on July 28, 2013

Perhaps it is not fair to blame the solar industry for anti-nuclearism, but what you have written is right on the money.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on July 29, 2013

1. The recent very drastic drop in the cost of PV panels was spurred by huge subsidy (over $30 billion in two years) from the Chinese Govt to manufacturers. Most manufacturers in China currently operate with negative margins. The price decline will not continue in such a dramatic fashion and the EIA estimates that the cost will be $0.14/watt in 2018, still well above that of nuclear without factoring in its variability.

2. Highly unlikely that solar PV would be at all adopted significantly without some government initiated incentive now or ten years from now.

3. “Unless, of course, ever cheaper and ever more easily integrated storage solutions come to fruition, something that is seeming more like a certainty every day”

I am following EOS and Aquion, but see little certainty that these batteries can be cost-effective enough to make solar competetive on a large scale especially considering it is still a ways out without a contained storage and charge-discharge management system.

4. Actually solar PV will be adopted at a much larger scale in the developed world. The developing world such as China, India, Vietnam, South Africa etc will all have greater amounts of energy created by nuclear plants than by PV in a decades time.

Off-grid solar may be common in developing countries, but it was first seen in developed ones.

The Shockly Quissier limit outlines the theoretical efficiency potential of solar PV, not as much room for improvement as you might expect in regards to efficiency of silicon or cd te cells. Without major decreases in the cost of cell substrates and module construction there is simply no way that PV can compete economically with wind or nuclear on a large scale. And then there is the storage problem. and then the fact that nuclear will fall in price due to Chinese involvement. PV will see usage, but believing it will be dominant based on the facts as we know them is not a realistic viewpoint.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on July 29, 2013

1. “The recent very drastic drop in the cost of PV panels was spurred by…”

it had nothing to do with the MANY technological advances in solar and materials science in recent years?  Really?  How about the similar cost trend over the last 30 years – all Chinese subsidies too?


2. If your #1 is in error, then your #2 is at the very least suspect


3. All battery (in fact all electron transfer) technology is based in materials science.  ALL products based on materials science are iterative (version based) to a degree than nuclear could only dream of. The entirety of this scientifc field of study is advancing on an exponential curve, especially in the area of combined 2d super-materials.

 

4. i’ll agree that over the next decade more solar wattage will go to developed economies, where energy appetites and budgets are high,  but nuclear REQUIRES a grid and more PEOPLE will come to rely on solar as one of, if not their main source of electrical energy production – in the gridless or under-gridded portions of the world (1.3 billion – 20% of the world’s population)

Shockley Queisser makes several fundamental assumptions:

– that the cell contains a single p-n junction

– that the junction is tuned to visible light

– that any extra energy in the photons is lost.

None of these assumptions is necessarily true, and a number of different approaches have ALREADY been used to SIGNIFICANTLY surpass the basic limit.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on July 30, 2013

1. No, with all due respect you are completely misinformed. The recent and very drastic drop in prices of C-Si PV modules (late 2009ish – today) was almost entirely accomplished by economies of scale in manufacturing infrastructure thanks to large government subsidy, not technological advancements. The majority of low-cost Chinese produced C-Si modules on the market today use the same cell and packaging technology as was available ten years ago, (with modest improvements in metallization, cell interconnection, and efficiency). In fact, the majority of the product is of worse quality than what was being produced on a much smaller scale in Europe and the US in the early 2000s.

If you want to debate this further we can, but you are ill-informed if you believe that technical break-throughs led to the steep price decline. It was 90% attributable to the huge financial commitment and subsequent loss by the Chinese government.

2. My answer above is spot on. Solar without incentives? If the EIA predicts solar PV at $0.14/kWh in 5 years, without storage, then you are expecting it to somehow drop another 8-10c while including storage in a short amount of time so that it can compete with natural gas? That simply isn’t going to happen:

China has negative margins on most of their PV product as it stands

half of their production capacity is unutilized as demand has been weaker than expected (60GW global annual manufacturing capacity, 30 GW annual demand)

China isn’t going to stick an additional 30 billion into manufacturing infrastructure, and it wouldn’t do them any good if they did due to the anti-dumping suits that already exist. Most knowledgeable analysts predict that PV prices will continue to drop at a much slower pace and then level off around 35-40c/watt.

3. “All battery (in fact all electron transfer) technology is based in materials science.  ALL products based on materials science are iterative (version based) to a degree than nuclear could only dream of. The entirety of this scientifc field of study is advancing on an exponential curve, especially in the area of combined 2d super-materials”

Nuclear fission reactors are also heavily based in material science, with the key difference being that the fuel involved has more than a million times the energy density of electrochemical energy storage.

4. Off-grid systems are very expensive, I agree they will see more use but major electrification usually happens due to industrial efforts, where coal or nuclear is mostly the power of choice. Vietnam is an example now, South Africa and parts of the Middle East will be soon.

“None of these assumptions is necessarily true, and a number of different approaches have ALREADY been used to SIGNIFICANTLY surpass the basic limit”

-Multiple junction cells (such as those used in concentrated PV and satellites) are far from economical for commercial use.

-Since visible light makes up a rather larger portion of spectral irradiance bandgaps tuned to these wavelength are rather efficient converters compared to alternatives. What semi-conductors exist to harvest ultra-violet and infra-red wavelengths with comparable efficiency to conventional PV? Which can be mass-produced cost-effectively?

-yes there is theoretical work being done on harvesting the vibratory/thermal energy of electrons by limiting them to two dimensions in “quantum wells” with projected efficiencies of ~60%. But this work is not remotely close to a mass-produced commercial product.

Even if PV cells could be made for free, the current costs of the glass and frames, the balance of system (racking, wiring, inverter), the permiting, the installation labor, the maintenance, and the need to compensate for variability of large scale deployment all make solar more expensive than wind and nuclear for the foreseeable future. A breakthrough is possible, but not a certainty.

Regardless of this solar PV still has the huge advantage of modular, low-maintenance, on-site generation, and for this reason I believe it will still see considerable use.

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on July 30, 2013
1. I think you misunderstood me or I you and our misunderstanding hinged on the definition of “recent” 
I agree that Chinese dumping (of a vastly inferior product, BTW) has drastically cut the price – SINCE 2009 (an important distinction).  Overall, however, the price trend of about the last 40 years remains and is expected to continue into the indeterminate future.


2. “Most knowledgeable analysts predict that PV prices will continue to drop at a much slower pace and then level off around 35-40c/watt.”

– I’m enjoying this discussion and want to avoid any further misunderstanding, so by “level off” do you mean that the price of solar is unlikely to fall further? Because if that is what you mean, it would require physical limitations other than Shockley- Queisser that I am unaware of. Can you link to knowledgeable analysts who set hard or soft limits at 35-40c/watt?


3. “Nuclear fission reactors are also heavily based in material science, with the key difference being that the fuel involved has more than a million times the energy density of electrochemical energy storage.”

– Well, not really the only key difference. Nuclear will continue to require large, complex, expensive machines and mechanical processes with well designed triple and quadruple fail-safe built in well into the foreseeable future. Solar does not and never will. 

– It is true that nuclear fuel has more than a million times the energy density. But this necessarily means that nuclear fuel is a million times more POTENTIALLY dangerous. And you know as well as I that the much of that energy density is never utilized in power production

4. Even if PV cells could be made for free, the current costs of the glass and frames, the balance of system (racking, wiring, inverter), the permiting, the installation labor, the maintenance, and the need to compensate for variability of large scale deployment all make solar more expensive than wind and nuclear for the foreseeable future.”

– Please understand that all of the cost you just mentioned are on the way down – certainly at a rate that is faster than the price of nuclear is going down.  Please understand that solar technology is affected by Wright’s law to a much higher degree than nuclear is and that many if not most analysts see solar overtaking wind soon. 
 
What you may not realize is that solar is much, MUCH more than energy production. Solar is part and parcel of the materials and molecular manufacturing revolution to a much higher degree than nuclear or any centralized power source could hope to be. The main barrier for solar energy production is storage. When, NOT IF, that is solved the game will be over. All eyes are now on energy storage research
George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on July 31, 2013

1. The price drop of the last 40 years is not expected to continue indefinitely without a fundamental change in the primary cell technologies (C-Si, Cd-Te), or a significant breakthrough in the Silicon wafering process. Yes there certainly is a lot of theoretical work done on other cell technologies as you have alluded to, but nothing is close to replacing silicon as the primary semi-conductor right now. Perhaps material science will provide a breakthrough, but moore’s law does not apply to advancements of material science in solar cells, batteries, etc (this is very important to note). The primary cell technology and production method being researched in the past 40 years (Crystalline and Poly Silicon) has been pushed to full maturity by global subsidy, getting additional gains in efficiency or drops in cost at this point takes much greater investment and research effort than the initial advancements. The situation is similar to the point of diminishing returns in buying a scientific measurement device in which you might pay X dollars for a device with 20% uncertainty, X+15% dollars for a device with 12% uncertainty, 2X dollars for a device with 9% uncertainty, and 10X dollars for a device with 5% uncertainty. Squeezing the last of the juices from the lemon takes much more strength than the bulk.

2. The hard limits that you are unaware of are the costs in energy, labor, raw materials etc to produce Silicon cells, aluminum frames, glass, and polymer packaging. There is very little margin and even negative margin as things stand even though the manufacturing infrastructure being used to produce the cells etc by various Chinese firms is essentially not reflected in the cost of production due to the government backing (infrastructure was free). The cost of labor in China will not go any lower and will likely rise in a decades time. Whether it is cells, frames, glass, or other polymers there is simply very little area from which to cut costs in the production of modules as we know them, and as I’ve explained above there is currently low likelihood of a cell technology rapidly replacing Silicon as the most economical option. Increased use of automation and decrease in waste in cell wafering is how the industry expects to get production costs to 37c by 2017.

Now there are some possible innovations that would allow the silicon wafering process to be much more efficient (vapor deposition). But these would require a lot of new manufacturing infrastructure to replace what is currently used and such a method is not viable scientifically right now. And as I had said before, if you study the costs involved, reducing price in the cell is not enough to get to the level of wind energy or even nuclear, unless you find a way to forego the need for glass, frames, and racking altogether.

visit this greentechmedia page where even some of the most delusional PV advocates in the comments section believe the price will level off around 35c in the coming years.

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/solar-pv-module-costs-to-fal...

3. Actually on a deaths per kWh basis nuclear is statistically safer than solar PV. Small Modular Reactors are the future of nucelar and will incorporate passive safety systems and completely underground reactor containment, making them orders of magnitude safer than the already impeccable safety record of current technology (especially in the US).

Nuclear energy prices in China are quite low compared to the US, which for all practical purposes is a price drop trend in nuclear energy. With the potential to build modular reactors in Chinese factories, nuclear energy could enjoy the same government subsidy and rapid cost decline that PV experienced, without the quality problems because commercial viability of low quality reactors simply isn’t possible with existent nuclear regularoty regimes of this day and age. Even if constructed in the US modular build should lead to a modest drop in costs and a significant drop in capital expense.

4. No not all of these soft costs of PV (racking, inverter, wiring, installation, permitting) will necessarily fall significantly in the future. Sure Germany has cheaper installation costs than the US, but this was achieved through heavy government intervention and mandate. Have automobiles decreased in price since the 1970s (relative to inflation)? Has construction labor or permitting decreased in cost? How about raw materials?

The answer is no, and aluminum racking will not significantly decrease in cost, neither will wiring or the labor to install panels. Inverters are in a similar situation to PV modules as far as the potential for cost decrease.

If some durable, stable, lightweight, and disposably cheap PV substrate becomes available then it could be a gamechanger. But nothing that we know of fits the bill to replace the conventional C-Si wafering method yet and until something is in the pipeline we can’t project that solar will be anywhere near wind in cost based on objective data.

And this is all before even considering the undeniable need for a storage medium.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on August 7, 2013

Beautiful. Thanks, Jagdish

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