Three Disadvantages of Solar PV

Full disclosure: We at SmartWatt are big fans of solar energy. But there are some disadvantages of solar PV. To date, the biggest one is economic: Even though the prices of manufacturing and installation have rapidly been falling, the costs associated with solar energy production still exceed the costs of more conventional generation by a significant margin. There are other challenges too, such as intermittency, storage and grid integration. But all of these are minor disadvantages of solar that can be overcome with ingenuity, technological breakthroughs, and planning. Here are three of the biggest disadvantages of solar PVy.

Intermittency/Inefficiency

Solar energy is not available at night and is subject to the whims of weather, season and climate. This means solar power suffers from intermittency—it can’t provide the same amount of power all day. Conversely, during peak sunshine, solar power may create more energy than is actually needed. This segues into intermittency’s twin sister, inefficiency. The sun that hits the earth provides in just one hour the potential energy to power the world for a year. But it’s impossible to capture all that energy. Typically, solar panels convert less than half the sunlight they absorb into electricity. Most models have an efficiency rate of only 15 percent, with the best models topping out at around 35 percent.

Still, every obstacle presents a workaround. Solar energy could be mixed with other non-intermittent forms of renewable energy (hydro, geothermal and solar thermal) to compensate for solar’s intermittency. Another strategy would be to strengthen the electricity network so that intermittency effects are not as localized.

Cost/Economies of Scale

Renewable energy technologies tend to be manufactured on assembly lines, where mass production can greatly reduce costs. In the late 1990s, for example, the cost of photovoltaic was reduced up to 25 percent for each doubling of production volume. Economies of scale will lead to cost reduction, but as long as relatively few units are produced, prices will remain high.

Even though solar enthusiasm is gaining momentum, investment seems to have tapered off. According to a report released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “investments in clean energy have fallen about 21 percent since 2011, with investments of only $254 billion in the United States in 2014. While that may seem like a lot of money, experts predict that annual investments in clean energy have to increase to $500 billion by 2020 and $1 trillion by 2030 to mitigate severe global temperature change.”

Infrastructure/Grid Integration

A huge challenge for solar energy is the current energy infrastructure. For more than a century, we have been limited to the same network of poles and wires, inadequate for the demands of renewable energy. What is needed is a new power model, capable of storing energy and adapting to complexities of supply and demand. Basically, we need a grid designed with renewable energy sources in mind that can rise to the requirements of a national rollout.

It’s important to point out that all of these current disadvantages of solar PV are surmountable. In the scheme of things, the disadvantages pale in comparison to the advantages. All the shortcomings can be fixed with time, money and technological breakthroughs. With the rapid pace of advancement, every year solar power gets to be a more attractive—and practical—option.

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