There are arguments for and against solar as a source of energy to contribute to the current mix of electrical power generation in the UK. For the most part until recently solar photovoltaics has not been seen as an appropriate technology for our part of the world. Other parts of the world that enjoy longer and more intense periods of sunshine would surely be more suitable than the UK for solar panels.
Unfortunately there are lots of myths, half truths and a high degree of misunderstanding when it comes to solar power. I am obviously pro solar but am willing to admit to the disadvantages as well as the advantages of adopting solar as a means of generating electrical power for both homes and the commercial sector. Solar has to be seen as part of the bigger picture of what used to be called alternative technology but is now more commonly referred to a renewable energy. So what are the solar energy advantages and disadvantages?
Before we go into the good and the bad of solar it is important to understand the renewable energy sector as a whole. What do we mean by renewable? Essentially it means a sustainable source of power generation to provide both electrical power and heating. It means that the technology and source of fuel we use will last forever and we will never run out of it. There is also an environmental element to this although not technically part of the equation. However environmental factors should be considered as an energy source is not really renewable if the method of power generation destroys our environment and eventually prevents us from using this technology.
So other than solar photovoltaics some other renewable technologies include, solar thermal, wind, tidal, wave ,hydro, geothermal and heat pumps that can extract useable energy from the ground, water and the air. Additionally gas mills, waste furnaces, wood burning and nuclear also come under the renewables banner as their source of energy is more or less constantly renewable at a rate that will allow us to keep on using this form of energy.
On the other side of the coin there are the non-renewables that use fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not considered renewable as we are burning them up at such a fast rate that they could never be replaced fast enough. Possibly in pre-mediaeval times fossil fuels would have been sustainable as long as the population remained constant but for our purposes fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas is a finite resource that is going to run out in the very near future.
So what are the arguments for and against solar? We will look at the arguments with a bias for the UK home and commercial sector to make it more relevant to most of the visitors to the Free Solar Panels UK website. So rather than going through a list of the advantages and disadvantages let us look at the different factors affecting the success of solar PV in the UK.
The argument for cost is probably the most potent for solar. Solar PV is a relatively new technology and can be compared to the computer microchip in terms of cost. Computers were for a long time unaffordable to most but the largest corporations; today in the UK most people own at least one computer. Microchips and solar cells are both semiconductor technology and have a relatively similar length of history.
The biggest argument against solar is its cost effectiveness, at the moment in the UK solar PV is too expensive. Without the current feed-in tariffs introduced by the government in 2010 you would not cover the cost of buying solar within the lifetime of the solar PV system, essentially the payback period is far too long. Many use this argument to show that solar is impractical and expensive for use in the UK.
There are of course many counter arguments. Solar is now cost effective and has a payback period of between 7 and 10 years. You also have to take into consideration that the true cost of other methods of power generation are also hidden. Many industries such as nuclear receive massive tax payer support, it is believed the cost of decommissioning many of the nuclear power plants in the UK are going run into the hundreds of millions. For much of the electricity that you use today you pay for twice, once on your electricity bills and then again through your taxes.
The hidden costs are also not taken into account for fossil fuels as is the obvious point that fossil fuels are finite and will run out. Burning fossil fuels releases a staggering amount of carbon dioxide and countless other chemicals and gasses harmful to be humans and the environment. Oil spills have devastated much of the natural environment and cost billions to clean up, at the end of the day it is the customer that is paying for this.
The cost of solar PV panels has fallen and continues to fall dramatically in the UK and around the world and so will soon be cost effective without and grants. We forget that we have invested billions in fossil fuel powered technologies over the years and have only recently been spending any significant amount of money on improving the efficiency of solar and reducing the cost of production methods.
It is true that solar can only produce electricity during daylight hours as it works by converting daylight into electrical energy. It is obvious that we currently cannot rely purely on solar to meet our electricity demands. You can store solar power in batteries but it is not really cost effective or practical on a national scale. The problem with this argument is that everyone against solar looks at solar in isolation. If we looked at any other fossil fuel technology in isolation we would find that to be impractical too, if this wasn't true we would generate all of our electricity from a single method.
Many of the solutions to our current technical problems are marred by the fact that the current regulations in the UK favour the big 6 energy companies who produce a majority of their energy from fossil fuels. It would be both possible and practical to feed excess power generated by solar back into the grid that could then be used during the night by the homeowner. It would of course mean that we couldn't rely solely on solar PV for generating all of our electricity but the fact solar represents a tiny fraction of the overall electrical capacity here in the UK.
Solar panels work best when they face south at a 30 to 40 degree incline. This means that not every home in the UK is suitable for solar. This is true and whilst homes are not built to take advantage of a southerly aspect this will continue to be the case. We have to look at alternative technologies for those homes that are not suitable the same way that not every home in the UK has access to the mains gas grid and so they use bottled gas or oil for heating.
One advantage that solar does have is that it is a clean, silent technology that requires little maintenance. This makes it ideal for use as a long term method of supplying electricity to homes and businesses without generating any additional pollution. Compared to many other methods of energy production solar is a comparatively benign technology.
Some claim that the money currently being used to subsidies solar under the government solar panel scheme could be better used elsewhere. The fact is that the investment that has taken place over the last couple of years has resulted in the creation of jobs, further reduced the cost of solar and pushed the amount of clean solar energy capacity being produced in the UK to over 100MW.
At the moment most of us rely on the big 6 power generators in the UK. This means that we have no control over the cost of our power and at the whim of constant price rises that far exceed inflation. Many of the recent rises for both gas and electricity we have seen double digit increases in the cost of our fuel bills. As the cost of coal, oil and gas continues to increase it will mean that we will all be paying an ever greater percentage of our income on our utility bills.
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