Solar energy pros and cons: everything you need to know about solar power

The amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface in just 90 minutes creates enough energy to power global energy consumption for a full year, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). But, solar energy still only accounts for below four percent of the world’s energy consumption. Part of the reason for this discrepancy can be a lack of education, particularly about the advantages of solar.

The prevalence of solar technology has become ubiquitous with the renewable energy movement. Organizations, businesses, and homeowners alike have begun to opt for the more clean energy-focused option as global carbon emissions continue to soar and the detrimental effects of climate change become more pronounced. But how do you assess if solar power is right for you? It’s important to understand the technology and its pros and cons before making the change.

Read on discover the pros and cons of solar energy in Little Sun’s guide to solar power, and learn how you can support Little Sun in creating a more solar-powered world.

What is solar energy?

Simply put, solar energy is a source of energy that’s harnessed from the sun. But how that actually works is a bit more complicated.

Light and heat is extracted from the sun using different technologies that generate electricity. The most common solar technology are solar panels, which contain photovoltaic (PV) cells that absorb elemental particles from the sun called photons. When absorbed by the panel, the photons release electrons from the atoms of the PV solar cell. The electrons create an electric current that can be used for various circuits to power everything from lamps to cook stoves.

Solar energy is a form of renewable energy, which is any type of energy from a source that is not depleted when used, or is naturally replenished. Examples of renewable energy sources include sunlight, wind, and water currents.

What are the advantages of solar energy?

There are many incentives and benefits of solar energy, making it a popular option for many people and businesses—as well as those living off the electrical grid. But if you’re less familiar with the technology, read on to understand why it might be a good idea to consider the switch from fossil fuels or natural gas:

  1. Choose an infinite renewable energy: Power from the sun is available almost everywhere on the planet, even on cloudy days. It will not run out—it is always there, always available, and always accessible.
  2. Decrease your energy or utility bills: If you’re looking for a way to keep your electricity costs down, solar energy can be an inexpensive alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically in the past decade to a point where solar energy costs the same, or less than, energy produced by fossil fuels. Consider switching to solar for a less costly electric bill.
  3. Increase your flexibility: Solar energy can be as small as one tiny light that enables a child to study at night or as large as a solar panel system that provides energy to an entire town. It can be produced in homes, communities, schools, businesses, hospitals, and more.
  4. Create energy independence: When solar panels are on your home or in your community, energy is owned locally rather than being concentrated in the hands of larger corporations or a utility company. Individuals and communities can save money on energy bills and earn income by selling their excess energy, too.
  5. Reduce your carbon footprint: According to the United Nations, solar energy technology releases less carbon emissions than most other energy sources. No emissions are produced during solar power generation, and assessments have proven that it overall has a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

Are there disadvantages of solar energy?

While the pros of solar power are plentiful, there can be some initial downsides to adopting the technology. We don’t believe these reasons discount the benefits, but they can be helpful to keep in mind:

  1. Upfront cost: While the long-term savings of solar energy are commonly known to be a benefit of the technology, the initial cost can sometimes be daunting. Because the cost of solar panels can be pricey, it’s important to plan your solar installation when you feel financially comfortable with the investment. It’s important to remember that once panels are installed, the lifespan of the technology is long and any initial investment tends to result in energy cost savings in the long-run. Plus, many incentive tax credits or federal tax credits can also help consumers minimize the initial amount they spend on a solar energy system.
  2. Weather-Dependent. Although solar energy can still be generated during rainy or cloudy days, the efficiency of the solar system can decrease a little bit. While this is usually not an issue, it could be a consideration.

Regardless of its initial drawbacks, solar energy is a viable and clean energy solution. It’s important to note that it’s disadvantages are rarely seen as reasons to not pursue it.

Is solar energy a sustainable clean energy solution?

Understanding the environmental impact of your energy consumption is an important first step in owning your energy access.

According to the Solar Energy Technologies Office, solar energy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. This is a big step toward protecting humans, wildlife, and important ecosystems. Solar energy can also greatly improve air quality.

Additionally, there are no direct greenhouse gas emissions from solar energy because the electricity is made from sunlight rather than burning fossil fuels. And because sunlight is a renewable energy source, that means we will never run out of it.

Why solar energy is so beneficial to Africa

Africa is one of the leading at-risk regions of climate change, even though it only emits 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, the region also leads the way in solar power potential. Africa has 60% of the world’s best solar resources, but only 1% of solar generation capacity–according to the International Energy Agency. This makes sense when you consider Africa is warmed by more hours of sunlight than anywhere else on earth. Solar energy is an ideal solution for many African countries, particularly because many of its inhabitants live off the electrical grid or have limited to no access to energy.

Increasing access to solar energy in Ethiopia with Little Sun

In a typical village in Ethiopia, life gets really busy before dusk. With no access to electricity, rural communities rush to get the most out of the last rays of sunshine preparing dinner, fetching water, and getting the chickens into handmade baskets hanging in the air so they don’t get eaten during the night.

Nahome, a 13-year-old boy from Mosebo village, Ethiopia, is just coming home, right before the evening pulls its blanket of darkness over his family hut and roads become deserted. During the day, he travels across long distances on foot to go to school and then to the family farm where he supports his father in herding cattle and crop harvesting. Because of his busy day, the only time that Nahome has to prepare for school is in the evening hours.

Before having the Little Sun solar lamp, families like Nahome’s resorted to energy sources like kerosene, candles, and open fires. Kerosene lamps alone are dangerous as they can often cause serious accidents, such as injuries or fires. But they are also extremely unhealthy. Breathing their harmful fumes is toxic – the equivalent of around 170 cigarettes per year.

Converting to cleaner light sources not only improves children’s health, it benefits the planet. In the last almost 10 years, Little Sun helped families in rural Africa get rid of kerosene which reduced CO₂ emissions by 800,000 metric tons. According to a study, kerosene has a substantial impact on climate change, emitting a disproportionate amount of black carbon. Just one kilogram of it produces as much heat in a month as 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide does over 100 years.

Read more about Nahome’s story here.

Join Little Sun in building a solar-powered world

While 800 million people still lack access to clean energy, Little Sun is on a mission to change that. By helping communities own their source of power, we’re committed to creating self-sufficient, independent, and resilient communities. If you’re interested in helping the energy crisis, we want your help. Together we can make a difference, one solar cell at a time.

Read more about our mission here or support us on our next solar impact project.