Updated: Jan 31, 2021
As the threat of climate change grows more menacing every day, the rush to find the perfect replacement for fossil fuels becomes more and more essential. Solar panels have been touted as the answer for years, but how realistic are they as the answer to the renewable energy problem?
When purchasing anything, the first thing buyers worry about is the cost. For solar panels, the upfront cost can be high. In the US, the average price is $3.18 per watt, which amounts to a lot of money when multiple solar panels are bought. In fact, a 6 kilowatt solar panel system could cost up to $19,080. While these costs may seem like a steep price to pay, solar panels actually save money in the long term. In California, the average amount of money saved by going solar is $99,181 over the lifetime of their solar panels. Additionally, the cost of solar power has gone down 70% in the past 10 years, while the price of electricity is steadily rising. There are also incentives available when buying solar panels that make it even cheaper, such as a possible 26% federal tax credit if the system is bought and installed in 2020. Buying solar power can also save money through a system called net metering. While this is not available everywhere, net metering is when any extra energy produced by solar panels counts as a credit on the electric bill and thus saves money. While solar panels may have a high initial cost, the payout is just as high, if not more so.
Another issue that many buyers have with solar panels is the intermittency of the source. They worry that the sun may not produce enough energy to power their home for reasons including (but not limited to) weather, time of day, time of year, and geographical features that can impact the intensity of the sun and thus how much energy is produced. For example, a location that is cloudy or rainy most of the time might not produce enough solar energy to power a home. However, what these people are unaware of is that there is such a thing as saving the solar power for later. Using a solar battery, excess solar energy is stored until it is needed to power the home. This way, there is still a source of energy even when the panels are not directly producing any power.
A final topic to consider before buying solar panels is the environmental impact. While the energy generated is emission free, the manufacturing of the panels does have some pollution associated with it. Some panels contain harmful chemicals such as sulfur hexafluoride, which is a pollutant. It is important to note that sulfur hexafluoride has far less of an impact on the climate than carbon dioxide, though it does still contribute to pollution. Overall, most people would agree that the negative environmental effect of solar panels is far less than the use of fossil fuels; it produces completely clean energy, no greenhouse gas emissions, and does not use any oil, gas, or coal/fossil fuels. On a greater scale, the more people in the U.S. who use solar power, the less the U.S. has to rely on other countries for any of the nonrenewable resources mentioned above, and therefore the less of those resources are used overall.
While there are both benefits and drawbacks to having solar panels, it is ultimately up to the buyer to decide if they are willing to accept the costs. The maintenance and initial cost may prove too much, or may be worth it, purely depending on the person and their home. One thing is for certain, though: sooner or later, fossil fuels will run out, and everyone will have to convert to renewable energy. The question is simply whether to switch now or wait until there is no other choice.