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Solar Power: The Future of Energy?

DJ Bauer


April 8, 2018


With energy playing the massive role that it plays in today’s society, it’s a topic that must be

discussed. There are numerous energy sources to choose from, including coal, petroleum,

hydropower, wind power, natural gas, and others, but the primary focus of this paper is solar

power. Solar power is a sector of energy that has been expanding and developing quickly in

recent years, and with environmental concerns about climate change and global warming being

larger than ever before, it’s worth discussing an energy source as environmentally friendly as

solar. This paper looks at the history and common types of solar energy, and discusses the

numerous facets, findings, and trends about solar energy, such as the environmental impacts,

alternatives, costs, advantages and disadvantages when compared to other resources, and more.

Overall, the main goal of this paper is to analyze what we know and come to a conclusion on

whether or not solar energy is the best energy option for the future.


It’s quite possible that energy’s role in today’s society is larger than it has ever been.

Energy is around us everywhere: heating our homes, fueling our cars, powering our electronic

devices, and much more. But our high levels of energy consumption are not the only way we

interact with energy. In recent years, energy has become a subject of much discussion. This is

largely because of the wide variety of branching topics within the energy sector to discuss, such

as economic viability, availability, and especially environmental effects, thanks to worrying

trends in recent years regarding global warming and climate change. The discussion is broadened

by the multiple ways of going about how to obtain energy: our energy sources. Traditional, non-

renewable energy sources like coal and petroleum have been utilized for decades, especially in

developed countries like the United States. Renewable resources such as hydropower and wind

power were in use beforehand during years of agrarian culture, but these green options have only

resurfaced recently due to worries about emissions caused by non-renewables. Regardless, it

seems like everybody has an opinion on the subject. This is certainly true for President Donald

Trump, who has recently shown favoritism toward coal and nuclear power after announcing

proposed subsidies for these industries (Gardner, 2018). Of course, this plan received backlash

from other sectors, including natural gas and renewables. This creates a problem for the future:

Which energy sector should we focus our attention on? Are coal and nuclear power really the

best choices? Or is another energy source our best option? Consider a source that is renewable,

widespread, completely clean, and rapidly developing. The source in question is solar energy. If

these are the most desirable characteristics, perhaps then it is solar power that is the best option

for our future. This paper will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy in

comparison to our other options in an effort to analyze the legitimacy of the previous statement.

Literature Review

So where does solar energy begin? Although the attention it receives has come in recent

years, solar power has been around for centuries. EnergySage (Richardson, 2017) provides an

excellent timeline documenting the history and evolution of solar power through time. Usage of

solar energy can be traced all the way back to the 7th century BC, as early civilizations harnessed

the power of the sun to light fires through magnification. Later on, the Greek and Roman empires

would use the sun for lighting torches in religious ceremonies. Centuries later, the Chinese would

do the same. In the Americas, the Anasazi tribe would settle on south-facing cliffs in order to

capture heat from the sun during winter. In the 1700s and 1800s, some steamboats and other

sailing vessels would use solar energy to power the furnaces.

But modern solar energy as we know it began in the mid-1800s when French scientist

Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. This effect describes the fact that

electricity can be generated from light under the right circumstances. This discovery was

expanded upon in 1873 when Willoughby Smith realized the photoconductive potential of

selenium and in 1876 when Richard Evans Day and William Grylls Adams found that selenium

could generate electricity in exposure to sunlight. Truly, the first primitive solar cell came about

in 1883 as Charles Fritts created the first cells from selenium wafers. It was eventually

discovered that silicon was a better material, and in 1954, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and

Gerald Pearson created the first silicon photovoltaic cell. It was the first time ever that solar

technology could actually power an electric device for extended periods of time. These first

photovoltaic cells were rather inefficient, only having a 4% conversion efficiency, but they were

a landmark discovery in advancing toward the solar energy we know today. Since the early days

of silicon solar panels, advancements in efficiency have occurred on numerous occasions. Just

mere years after the invention of silicon PV cells, efficiency was already up to 14%. By 1985, a

maximum of 20% efficiency was reached. Today, conversion efficiency sits in the range of 15-

22% (Greenmatch, 2018).

Efficiency, however, relies heavily on the type of solar cell used. Energy Informative

(2017) points out the differences between the most common types of solar panels. Of the

commercially viable options, monocrystalline cells tend to have the highest efficiency, typically

ranging between 20.1 and 21.5%. These cells have the highest grade of silicon, don’t take up

much space, and are quite durable, typically living to 25 years of age. They do come at a cost,

however, as monocrystalline panels are the most expensive option. They are also heavily

impacted by shade, dirt, and weather like snow or rain, and are often far less efficient in colder

temperatures. The manufacturing process is also a concern, as a lot of silicon waste is produced.

Another option is the polycrystalline solar panel. Polycrystalline solar cells consist of a medium-

purity silicon; as a result, these cells are less efficient than the monocrystalline version, usually

falling in the 13-16% efficiency range. They also require more space for operation than

monocrystalline panels. On the plus side, polycrystalline panels are more tolerant of colder

temperatures and do not create as much silicon waste in the manufacturing process. Thin-film

solar is the other commonly commercially available type. These cells are easily the cheapest

option, both for manufacturers and consumers. Temperature has even less of an impact, but thin-

film solar cells are also the least efficient (7-13%) and the quickest to degrade. In general, thin-

film solar panels tend to require a lot of space, so they’re also non-viable for residential use.

It’s clear that solar energy has come a long way since its inception, now available to

consumers in three common types. But how do solar panels stack up against other energy

sources, and what other solar options are there in the world today?


In determining the validity of solar energy as the proper power source for the future,

other factors must be discussed, including environmental impact, solar alternatives, storage,

costs, jobs, and comparisons to other forms of energy. There’s a lot going on in the world today

with solar energy, and there’s still much to discuss here.

Environmental impacts. When discussing solar energy, environmental impacts must be

addressed, considering the gravity of the situation at hand. Of course, the number one

environmental advantage of PV panels is that the conversion process is completely clean: no

harmful greenhouse gas emissions (Green, 2012). In terms of combatting global warming, solar

energy is a clear winner. However, solar energy is not clean in every aspect. Union of Concerned

Scientists (2013) addresses these concerns, as well as solutions for these issues. One matter that

has already been discussed is the manufacturing of solar cells, which produces excess silicon.

This is not the only concern in the manufacturing process, as other hazardous excess materials

like hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acid can be accidentally released into the environment. To

combat this, regulations have been placed to prevent manufacturers from disposing of materials

improperly and putting workers and the environment at risk. Financial incentives have also been

offered for recycling efforts. Another concern is land degradation. Utility-level solar plants often

require large, open spaces to operate. Solutions have been discovered here too. Instead of

clearing land for panel use, already degraded land like abandoned mines and brownfields have

been used to house solar plants. One more environmental issue to discuss is the greenhouse gas

emissions caused indirectly by solar power. The conversion process itself may not create

emissions, but transportation, maintenance, manufacture, and installation of solar panels do.

Despite the concerns, evidence shows that life-cycle emissions for PV systems are far lower than

those of non-renewable alternatives like natural gas and coal. Typical PV systems produce

anywhere between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour during

their lifetime. Natural gas, meanwhile, produces between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide

equivalent per kilowatt-hour, and coal creates between 1.4 and 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide

equivalent per kilowatt-hour. So, while there are some environmental concerns about solar

energy, there are ways to solve these issues, and the bottom line remains that solar power is far

more environmentally friendly than other common energy sources.

Solar alternatives. Most people tend to think of solar power in terms of the previously

discussed monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film panels, but other options exist. The

primary alternative is solar thermal energy. Like solar panels, solar thermal is a renewable, non-

emissive resource that gathers its power from the sun. But instead of converting sunlight into

electricity, solar thermal uses radiation to heat a liquid medium (often water), which is then sent

to a heat exchanger, which boils water in steam-turbine generator, producing electricity (Green,

2011). Solar thermal is especially useful for providing heat and hot water for buildings, on top of

its electricity generating capabilities. There are various types of solar thermal systems, but all of

them have two primary components: a reflector, which captures sunlight and concentrates it, and

a receiver, which contains the fluid that receives the reflected sunlight, heats up, and begins the

aforementioned electricity generation process (EIA, 2018). Like solar panels, there are three

common types of solar thermal systems, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration

(2018) describes in great detail. The first is the linear concentrating system, a large collection of

U-shaped mirrors that focus sunlight onto receiver tubes which span the length of the mirror. The

fluid in these tubes heats up, beginning the electricity generation process. The second type is the

solar power tower. In this version, small, sun-tracking mirrors known as heliostats surround a

tower with a fluid receiver at the top, reflecting sunlight onto the tower. The third type is the

solar dish, which features a large, satellite-like dish comprised of many small mirrors, all of

which reflect sunlight into the center of the dish, where the receiver lies. Despite the different

collection and electricity generation method, solar thermal has largely the same advantages and

drawbacks of solar panels. It’s clean, renewable, and non-emissive (plus it’s a great method for

power generation), but it’s heavily affected by weather and temperature, takes up a large space,

and is very expensive. The initial cost is so high that solar thermal is not an economically viable

method for residential life, but as technology continues to develop, costs will fall, and soon

enough, we may see solar thermal have the same viability as traditional solar.

Solar thermal is not the only other way to gather solar power. Recently, another method

has been gaining steam: concentrated PV solar power. By combining the light concentration

aspect of solar thermal with traditional solar panel methods, we have now found a way to reach

efficiencies of over 40% (Zytech Solar). In this method, light is concentrated through a mirror

onto a solar cell, increasing its conversion efficiency. The addition of optics to this kind of solar

energy, however, is easier said than done. Concentrated PV solar power is easily the most

expensive option and is only beginning to enter the commercial market. Fortunately, recent

trends have shown falling prices in entire solar industry, and as technology continues to develop,

prices are likely to continue dropping. Thanks to the incredible efficiency of concentrated PV,

it’s quite possible that this will be the future of solar energy.

Storage. One of the biggest drawbacks of solar energy is the fact that, traditionally, it has

not been a viable option for consistent use. When the sun goes down or is obscured by clouds,

solar energy loses its luster. Fortunately, developing technology continues to help solve problems

like this. Companies like Tesla have developed rechargeable batteries (Tesla’s versions are

known as the Powerwall and Powerpack) for storing solar energy (Solar Tribune, 2016). Simply,

these rechargeable batteries are powered by PV panels during the day, storing excess electric

energy. Then, during nighttime or on a cloudy day, the battery can be tapped into to release this

stored energy. It’s an incredible advancement in the solar sector, but it doesn’t stop there.

EnergySage describes how consumers can connect their solar systems and batteries to the grid,

becoming “grid-tied.” Once a consumer becomes grid-tied, he or she can share his or her stored

solar energy with other grid-tied consumers. Excess solar energy can be sent to the grid where

other consumers can pick it up if his or her own panels are not producing enough. In this way,

solar power gains a community focus. Advancements in the solar sector continue to amaze, but

as is often the case, price is an issue. EnergySage reveals that available batteries generally cost

between $5,000 and $7,000. Even Tesla’s Powerwall 2.0, which includes a built-in inverter, a

device that helps to manage the flow of electricity in and out of a battery, costs $5,500. Still, the

trend of recent price drops in the solar sector rings true for batteries as well. Since 2014, prices

have dropped by 50% and are expected to continue dropping (Solar Tribune, 2016). If batteries

continue to become more affordable, then the goal of having a clean, available, reliable energy

source could be realized in solar power.

Costs. It’s been stated many times throughout this paper that cost is perhaps the number

one disadvantage of solar energy. According to estimates from EnergySage (Matasci, 2018),

most people will pay between $2.71 and $3.57 per watt, or $3.14 per watt on average. The mean

gross cost for the entire system before tax credits is a whopping $18,840. On average, people

will pay around $13,188 for a 6-kilowatt system, $17,584 for an 8-kilowatt system, and $21,980

for a 10-kilowatt system. Fortunately, these prices are down about 6.5% from last year, but

nonetheless, they remain a major investment. When the purchase of a panel could cost more than

a used car, it’s understandable why there are some financial concerns about solar energy.

Jobs. Another cost to consider is the socioeconomic cost of the workforce. There have

been worries that shifting focus from traditional resources likes coal and oil would end up being

too costly for the job market. In reality, the opposite is true. Solar Resource Guide (2016)

provides data on how solar energy has been a boon for the workforce. Since 2010, there has been

a 123% increase in jobs in solar energy. Since 2014, 1.2% of all new jobs created have been in

the solar industry. Many of these new jobs are in installation (solar energy’s largest employment

sector with nearly 120,000 workers), but this is not the only option. Solar Resource Guide (2016)

provides a list of 40 different occupation possibilities in the solar sector, from chemists, to

electrical engineers, to designers, to sales managers. Certainly, there’s a wide variety of jobs to

go around in solar power. And because solar is a growing industry, the amount of open jobs is

expected to grow as well. Include the fact that solar jobs are typically safer and better for

personal health than jobs like mining or fracking, and it’s hard to see how solar energy is really a

bad thing for the job market.

Comparisons to other forms of energy. All types of energy sources have their

advantages and disadvantages when compared to others; solar is no different. Solar energy

certainly has an edge over non-renewables in terms of environmental impact, as we’ve discussed

before. But what advantages does it have over other renewable sources? Soluxe Energy Solutions

lists a few. Solar energy also has biomass and hydroelectric power beat on the environmental

side. Biomass produces carbon monoxide and other volatile compounds when used, and

hydroelectric has the power to change entire ecosystems from the presence of dams. Solar energy

is better than geothermal energy as well when discussing availability, as solar energy can be

accessed equally nearly anywhere, but geothermal energy typically relies on being near tectonic

plate borders. From a societal point of view, solar energy also tops wind power, as solar panels

are quieter, easier to maintain, and more suitable for residential areas than wind turbines. As for

non-renewables, price, a current disadvantage for solar, may soon become an advantage. It’s

been discussed that prices have dropped significantly (73% since 2010) and are likely to continue

to drop. At the moment, prices for solar energy lie at about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour, comparable

to fossil fuels, which cost between $0.05 and $0.17 per kilowatt-hour (Dudley, 2018). It’s

estimated that by 2020 or 2022, solar energy prices could match or best fossil fuel prices.

Solar does have its disadvantages though. At the moment, solar only makes up 2-3% of

global energy capacity (Richardson, 2017). Technology for fossil fuels like coal and petroleum

have been around longer and are far more developed at the moment. Right now, it’s easy to fuel

your car with gasoline, but it’s not nearly as easy to power your home with solar energy. Prices

may be dropping, but additional factors such as installation costs and maintenance costs mean

that solar energy remains a more expensive energy source than alternatives. Finally, there’s the

matter of efficiency. Although the newest technology has efficiency numbers up to 40%,

standard technology remains in the 15-22% range, while coal averages around 33% efficiency

(World Coal Association) and natural gas can reach as high as 60% efficiency (What You Need to

Know About Energy). Going forward, discussing ways to curb the drawbacks and expand upon

the benefits of solar energy will undoubtedly by a priority.



Solar energy has come a long way. From the early findings of the mid-1800s to today’s

milestones, solar power has had quite a history. It’s incredible to think that human understanding

has been able to create a way of capturing the sun’s energy more efficiently than nature itself;

solar energy’s 15-22% conversion efficiency bests that of photosynthesis, which is generally able

to capture only 0.1-2% of the sun’s energy, often maxing out at around 3% (Biello, 2011).

Despite the incredible advancements in this sector, it’s clear that there are issues that must be

addressed in order for solar energy to prosper, most of which are related to costs. Fortunately, as

it has been expressed numerous times throughout this paper, costs have been dropping and are

expected to continue dropping as advancements continue. As for catching up to coal and oil in

terms of development, time is likely to be the only solution. A growing workforce and monetary

flow to solar energy over time should be what the sector needs to become a major player in the

game of energy in the world today.

Just as energy has been thoroughly discussed here, discussions elsewhere are sure to

continue going forward. So, does this paper support or refute the fact that solar power is the

energy source of the future? All things considered, it has to be a major contender. The clean

factor is hard to beat. Climate change and global warming are pressing matters, and solar energy

is a fantastic option for addressing them. Efficiency rates may not be as high as they could be,

but when we are fortunate to have an ever-flowing energy source like the sun, omnipresent in

every one of our lives, it’s hardly a major issue. Intermittency problems are being lessened by the

presence of batteries as well, leaving costs as the biggest roadblock for solar power. Hopefully in

time, costs will fall, fully opening the door for solar energy. If we truly want a green, sustainable,

readily available power source for our future, solar energy appears to be our best option.


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