The pros and cons of solar energy

With the launch of the world's largest solar thermal power plant, in the Mojave Desert, earlier this month we've taken a closer look at the technology that's harnessing solar energy and what are the pros and cons of solar

What is solar energy?

In the simplest of terms, solar energy is the technology used to harness the sun's energy and convert it into electricity to power homes, businesses and industry.

Video:  Solar power 101 -

How does solar energy work?

“Many people are familiar with so-called photovoltaic cells, orsolar panels, found on things like spacecraft, rooftops, and handheld calculators,” say National Geographic.How does solar power work

“The cells are made of semiconductor materials like those found in computer chips. When sunlight hits the cells, it knocks electrons loose from their atoms. As the electrons flow through the cell, they generate electricity.”

Wikipedia adds: “Solar photovoltaics is now, after hydro and wind power, the third most important renewable energy source in terms of globally installed capacity.”

“On a much larger scale, solar thermal power plants employ various techniques to concentrate the sun's energy as a heat source,” National Geographic surmises. “The heat is then used to boil water to drive a steam turbine that generates electricity in much the same fashion as coal and nuclear power plants, supplying electricity for thousands of people.”

Where are the biggest solar power stations?

“Sprawling across 3,500 acres of the Mojave Desert is a system of gleaming mirrors and soaring towers that looks like nothing else you've seen,” according to a recent report in Today's plant california ivanpah

“It is, in fact, the largest solar thermal power plant in the world,” they say. “At full capacity, its 173,500 heliostats and trio of 459-foot-tall towers will pump out 392 megawatts of energy, or enough to power some 140,000 California homes. The project is called Ivanpah, and it's a $2.3 billion joint venture of BrightSource Energy, NRG and Google.”

BrightSource claim the complex “will reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 400,000 tons per year.”

Video: Ivanpah: A Compilation -

Which countries are the biggest producers of solar?

According to Energy Informative: “Germany has by far the highest capacity of solar photovoltaic power (PV) in the world at 32,4 GW (31%) at the end of 2012. Newly connected PV systems worth 7.6 GW were added this year (2013).

“Germany’s solar panels generated about 23 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity in 2012, which is impressive, but still only covers 3% of the country’s total electricity consumption. Market analysts believe this number will increase to 25% before 2050. Germany aims for a total capacity of 66 GW by 2030 with an annual growth of 2.5-3.5 GW.”

The other big players in global production, thanks in part to hefty subsidisation in many cases, in Europe are France, Spain, Belgium and Italy. In the rest of the world it's Japan, China, India and the US who lead the way.

What are the advantages of Solar Power?

Solar energy is clean and renewable, can be produced free of charge (after the initial installation), will last forever, causes no pollution or noise and requires very little maintenance to keep solar cells running because they have no moving parts. In the long term, there can be a high return on investment due to the amount of free energy a solar panel can produce, it is estimated that the average household will see 50% of their energy coming in from solar panels.

What are the disadvantages of Solar Power?

Solar panels can be expensive to install, energy is limited by a country's exposure to sunlight, solar power stations can be very expensive to build and don't return huge output currently, plus the
batteries used to store solar energy can often be large and heavy, taking up valuable space and prone to replacement from time to time.

We hope you've found this an enlightening blog post. Look out for more renewables discussion coming soon on PIF.

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