By Chloe Smith
“Solar power will be the single largest source of electricity generation by the midpoint of the century.’’ -Elon Musk, 2014
Rows and rows of shiny panels line the country field, soaking in rays and converting it to energy. Many politicians and environmentalists praise the idea of solar panels being the leading source of energy for the world. But are solar panels as effective as they say? How do they work? And what are the risks?
Global solar photovoltaic capacity – the ability to convert solar to energy – has grown from around five gigawatts in 2005 to approximately 940 gigawatts as of 2021. That’s 3.6% of the world’s electricity coming from solar. For reference, a gigawatt is a unit of energy equal to one billion watts. That’s enough energy to power 10 million light bulbs. On average, a US residential home uses 10,632 kilowatts of power annually. China leads the world in solar panel installation, with 307 gigawatts powering their country.
How Solar Works
There are two main kinds of solar energy technologies: photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar thermal power (CSP). Solar panels use photovoltaic technology to convert sunlight into electricity through solar cells. Concentrating solar thermal power uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight to convert it to heat-based energy. These are mainly used in large power plants.
When it comes to taking the energy collected and distributing it to the places it’s needed, solar energy is integrated into the power grid. In order to successfully merge solar with other electrical sources, the electrical grid must be reliable and resilient, otherwise it can lead to power surges and blackouts.
Because solar panels rely solely on sun rays to create energy, they are considered a variable generation resource by not consistently producing the same levels of energy. Just like wind, solar panels are at the mercy of nature, and if clouds decide to stick around for weeks, it will cause major delays in energy production.
Some propose using batteries to store excess energy on sunny days to make up for cloudy ones. However, the costs of batteries outweigh the benefit of energy and would make solar energy unreasonably expensive. Many solar panels can also dump excess energy into the electrical grid. If the grid is not reliable, it causes high risks of blackouts, circuit blowouts and fluctuations in a neighborhood where there may be several kinds of electricity generated.
“Environmental threat” and “solar panels” rarely exist in the same sentence. Many activists, engineers and politicians assure people that solar panels are one of the best ways to create sustainable energy that is good for the environment. But there are several risks in play when manufacturing solar cells, the part of the panel that stores the energy.
Silicon dioxide, a material used in some kinds of solar cells, poses a threat to human health when it is mined. Particles released into the air can cause silicosis, which leads to breathing problems. Other toxic substances are vital ingredients when manufacturing a silicon solar PV cell, such as arsine and phosphine.
A solar cell has a life of about 25 years before it can no longer be used. It is then deposited into a landfill, where it leaks out the toxic chemicals it carries. Lead, brominated flame retardants, poly-brominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are all materials that coat the cell to help it absorb solar radiation. When they leak into the earth, they can cause major risks to human and environmental health.
Comparing to Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels are a limited resource that isn’t considered sustainable. While fossil fuels have a higher density in energy than solar, they will eventually run out. When it comes to price, solar power is more expensive upfront, but is cheaper in the long run.
The cost of electricity from fossil fuels is between 5 and 17 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas solar energy is 3 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour. Because of its lower density, more solar is needed to make an equivalent amount of energy compared to fossil fuels.
While there are both benefits and drawbacks of solar energy, it is up to the population to decide which is better for them and the environment. Most energy sources will impact the environment in some sort of way, but making an informed decision can reduce the negative effects as best as possible. If people want to convert to solar, they should know the risks as well as the benefits, in order to make a wise decision.
Solar Energy by David E. Newton