Advantages & Disadvantages To Solar/Thermal Energy

Breaking down the pros and cons...

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Solar/Thermal Energy Pros & Cons

Solar thermal energy (STE) is a technology in which thermal energy, or electrical energy, is produced by harnessing the power of the sun’s rays.

STE is often confused with photovoltaic (PV) solar, which converts solar energy directly into usable electricity with an electric inverter.

Solar thermal energy uses thermal energy panels, also known as solar thermal energy collectors, to convert the sun’s rays to heat.

It does so by heating up a liquid within the panels that is then transferred to a control panel, hot water tank, and boiler in order to provide space heating or hot water for a home or business.

Here’s a fun fact for you…

Solar thermal energy technology is over a hundred years old, with one of the earliest known applications showcased at the 1878’s World Fair, in which solar thermal energy was used to rapidly cool down ice cream.

Since then, solar thermal energy has been used in residential and commercial instances and is growing in popularity causing a lot of people to ask…

“What are the pros and cons of solar energy?”

Although the increase in popularity can be largely attributed to the fact that using wind, solar, and biomass energy can lead to sustainable energy use, there are a few drawbacks of solar energy.

In this article, we will outline the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy with a strong focus on the pros and cons of solar thermal energy.

Pros of Solar Thermal Energy

Sustainable Energy Use

The most important factor when assessing solar energy pros and cons is undoubtedly the fact that solar power itself is rooted in sustainability.

Solar energy is sustainable because the sun will always be producing energy and therefore can always be used to power homes and businesses.

Everyday, we rely on the sun to provide light and energy as it continues to enable life on earth.

When analyzing different types of power, Thomas Edison spoke of solar and said:

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on the amount of oil and coal left in the earth and the rapid adoption of technologies such as wind, solar, and biomass are necessary in sustaining the amount of power required for the growing population of the earth.

By pivoting the populations main sources of energy to sustainable resources, future generations will be able to power their lives without the fear that the resources will be diminished.

Low Maintenance

A large portion of what makes solar energy so sustainable is not only the unlimited access to a source of power, but the little amount of maintenance that is needed in order to continue to produce energy onsite.

Thermal solar collectors have an average lifespan of about 25 years, and often continue to work at slowly diminishing efficiency for years well after their normal lifespan.

There are some measures that can be taken to ensure a solar thermal collector is running at peak efficiency, such as:

  • Checking the system’s pressure
  • Replacing the liquid inside of the collectors
  • Keeping the panels free of dust and debris.

However for the majority of a thermal solar panel system’s life, no maintenance is needed in order to continue to produce energy from the sun’s rays.

Ultimately, after installation, the owner of a solar thermal energy system can reap the benefits without having to worry about the system’s day to day operations.

Non Polluting, Clean Energy

In researching the pros and cons of solar energy, one important advantage to immediately adopting solar power is the undeniable benefit of attaining cleaner air quality.

Although it is true that there are some pollutants created when a solar thermal energy system is created, during the lifetime of energy production, a solar thermal system does not emit any toxic chemicals or greenhouse gases.

Whenever coal is burned or petroleum is combusted in a car’s engine, harmful pollutants such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxides are produced.

These chemicals not only are directly related to cardiovascular and respiratory disease in the populations around where the pollution is being generated, but they are also greenhouse gases which become trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and are the leading causes of global warming.

So, not only does adopting solar power benefit the local inhabitants where it is being utilized, but it also contributes a positive environmental effect on the world at large.

Therefore, a large advantage of solar energy is its positive effect on the environment locally, globally, immediately, and for future generations.

Cons of Solar Thermal Energy

Inconsistent Electricity Production

Of course, nothing is perfect.

If you take a look at the pros and cons of using solar energy, there is a pretty obvious disadvantage to going solar…

The sun is not always shining.

Take or leave a few hours depending on the season and location on the globe, the sun only shines for roughly half of the day.

This means that a solar thermal system only has the potential to produce energy for roughly 12 hours each day.

Sunlight intensity also varies throughout the course of the day, so the amount of energy produced by solar panels varies strongly between the early morning hours and the heat of the afternoon sun.

Additionally, cloud coverage can obstruct direct sunlight.

Although it is true that solar power still works on cloudy days, it simply does not work as well as it does under clear, blue skies.

Additionally, some areas of the world that are located far from the equator, where the sun shines the most, have a limited amount of sunlight in one part of the year and an exorbitant amount of sunlight during the other part of the year.

This inconsistency would make solar extremely practical, but only for roughly half of the year, leaving the users out of luck when the sun is not shining.

Difficulty of Energy Storage

One of the huge cons of solar energy today is the difficulty in storing solar thermal energy.

As the solar collectors heat a hot water tank, no matter how much insulation is built around the storage container, the hot water will eventually naturally cool off.

Much like a well insulated thermos, a solar thermal water tank will store hot water for as long as possible, but cannot be stored for weeks at a time.

Because solar thermal energy uses heat and not electricity to provide hot air and water for homes and businesses, the excess energy produced by a solar thermal collection system cannot be stored in an electric battery.

There are many different kinds of solar power thermal storage such as:

  • Two tank direct systems
  • Two tank indirect systems
  • Single tank thermocline systems

Each of these have advantages and disadvantages depending on the application of the solar thermal system.

Ultimately however, with the inability of long term storage, matched with the inconsistency of readily available power, solar thermal energy is not practical for areas that do not have enough sunlight exposure to consistently produce heat and hot water.

High Cost to Start Up

Lastly, when looking into the pros and cons of solar energy, one of the most important factors people seek is the amount of money it requires to go solar.

Unfortunately with solar thermal energy, there is often a high cost involved with designing and installing a high quality system to be used in a home or business.

When being compared to the steam that is created when burning coal or natural gas, producing the steam used to heat water with solar thermal energy has been consistently more expensive through the last 20 years.

Although there are plenty of options for financing a solar thermal energy system, as well as tax credits and federal incentives available to reduce the cost, the high price tag alone is enough to scare away some looking to save money on their utility bills.

Thankfully, this disadvantage of solar may be disappearing soon, as many reports have shown consistent price drops in the cost of solar thermal systems.

Due to simple supply and demand, as the scarcity of fossil fuels increases, so will the price. Therefore, solar thermal energy will become the cheaper alternative in time.

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