In struggling with the economy of energy, consumers and policy makers end up with two options: make more or use less. While conservation is a popular idea, it is a practical challenge to a significant degree. So dependent are developed cultures on automation that restraint of power usage is likely only achievable around the edges of people’s lives. Renewable energy better appeals to this plugged-in society. Solar farms are attractive to many, but are not without shortcomings.
Solar Farms Pros
Solar farms are large-scale collections of PV (photovoltaic) panels spread over one to 100 acres of land. Capturing the sun’s energy to generate electricity, they feed into local and regional power grids regulated by public utilities. In and of themselves, they release no harmful atmospheric emissions. This is good news for the climate and for everyone who breathes. As a consequence, less fossil fuels are burned, further enhancing the atmosphere’s envelope.
Neither does solar power pollute water or land. Non-renewable fuels like petroleum are sometimes spilled or leaked. This has devastating effects on the soil, on plant life and on animal populations. No such widespread damage is ever linked to solar farms or PV panels. In fact, PV systems have long energized calculators and timepieces with little ill effect.
Regular consumers of electricity like to know that its power source will be available, not only today, but well into the future. One major weakness of depending on geological resources is the time it takes for them to replenish. Some scientists speculate that it could be over 100,000 years for a gallon of petroleum to do so. On the positive side of solar farms pros and cons is that sunshine renews itself almost every day.
Unless the earth stops revolving around its star, we have a continuous source of power with the help of solar farms. Many universities and research institutions, in fact, are incorporating solar farms to help power their own campuses. Combined with wind and hydro-electric generation, these institutions are now minimizing their use of fossil fuels and optimizing renewable—and sustainable—supplies.
Any evaluation of solar farms pros and cons is incomplete without studying noise pollution. Drills make noise, and so do pumps. Most every process related to fossil fuel production is loud. Interestingly, an attempt to study and analyze whale communication in 2013 had to be aborted due to the undersea commotion generated by offshore drilling. Gas compressors are among the raucous culprits.
By contrast, solar farms emit at worst a low hum. This sound is made when the direct current apprehended by the PV panels is converted to alternating current to be received by the grid. It is so low, in fact, that one can only hear it if there is near-silence outside the solar farm’s boundaries.
When we talk of solar farms pros and cons, we need to explain the terminology. They are not “farms” in the sense that people grow crops or raise animals. The PV modules capture energy from the sun and produce electricity. Once in place, the modules need little maintenance or upkeep. Other than a semi-annual cleaning, these units can operate for over two decades without so much as a tune-up.
Again, this fact stands in stark relief against the equipment related to petroleum or natural gas withdrawal. What is more, the minimal care for solar panels stacks up well against wind turbines, another renewable energy rock star. Once the modules are up and running, there is little else to do. A crop or livestock farmer can only dream of a day without intensive labor.
Solar Farms Cons
Yes, the sun will always be there (for the foreseeable future, anyway). However, clouds get in the way, not to mention a pesky little annoyance called night time. This lack of constant access makes greater reliance on solar energy a challenge. Other renewable sources—wind power, again—are also intermittent, even more so. This is a sobering reality when weighing the solar farms pros and cons.
Because of this lack of predictability, grid operators are left in a quandary, and forced to seek out other energy providers when solar farms produce a smaller output. For this reason, solar farms are not usually exclusive sources for grids, which must adopt a combination of renewable and non-renewable supplies. Even the movement of clouds can severely impact solar farm electricity yields.
Storage media like batteries help to save captured energy for when the need is optimal. At the same time, the technology to achieve this is pricey. Offsetting this expense is the fact that most energy consumption occurs when the sun is at its brightest—around midday. Still, such calculations do not grant for greater heat usage in the dark of winter, for instance. This is food for thought among the solar farms pros and cons.
Lithium-ion battery packs—capable of storing solar energy—cost approximately $1,000 per kilowatt hour. Even with the expanded capacity of grids to receive sun-generated electricity, the price passed on to the consumer is intolerable compared to what they would pay relative to fossil fuel power.
Require Rare Materials
Cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium deselenide (CIGS) are not available at retail establishments. These are highly specialized substances used to manufacture solar cells. In addition, they are finite and the use of rare earth minerals is controversial, even if the goals are not. Given the longevity of solar panels, this might not appear to be a concern. Nevertheless, while sunlight is renewable, these elements are not.
Harnessing the sun’s power for human usage shows enormous promise as a solution to energy shortage and climate change. Yet answers sometimes raise more questions as solutions sometimes create more problems. Continued research will help resolve some issues but diversifying energy sources is probably a safe strategy for the short term.