Is Solar Energy a Renewable Resource? The Dirty Truth About Renewable Solar

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | May 25, 2023

Man walking on the globe holding a solar panel wonders is solar energy a renewable resource and what are renewable resources and can a solar system produce energy emissions, and are there any environmental issues to solar power?

The popularity of solar energy has increased over the years and you may wonder, is solar energy a renewable resource?

The truth of the matter is that the sun, which is a constant in people’s lives, is a great energy source that is readily available and renewable.

However, it’s not all fun and games with sun energy because there are some dirty truths about renewable solar.

Large solar farms and the manufacturing of solar panels have serious adverse environmental effects, not to mention the slew of other problems that come with solar energy.

This article explains the answer to the question, is solar energy a renewable resource, why solar energy is considered renewable and why sometimes it’s not as good as it sounds.

What Is Renewable Energy: Is Solar a Renewable Resource?

Renewable energy,6 sometimes called clean energy is derived from natural processes and sources that replenish constantly.1

For instance, the wind keeps blowing and the sun keeps shining, though their availability depends on weather and time.

A person standing next to solar panel systems installed on the roof to check if the system is functioning properly.

(Image: GlacierNPS14)

Many experts consider renewable energy as new technology that involves harnessing the power of nature. However, most of these resources have been used as energy sources since time immemorial for lighting, transportation, heating, and many more.

The wind has been used to power boats and ships to sail the sea and on land, it has been used on windmills to grind grains. Moreover, people used the sun to get warm during the day and lit fires in the evenings.

Over the years, there was a noticeable shift from natural resources to what is now referred to as dirtier energy sources. The main reason for this shift is that these energy sources were cheap and readily available.

Humans turned from using the sun and biomass to using gas and coal.

Currently, scientists and other experts have researched and invented less-expensive and innovative ways to capture and retain solar and wind energy, increasing the popularity of renewable energy resources.

Countries and their governments have adopted these sources of energy. In the US alone, renewable energy accounts for more than 12% of total energy generation.

Renewable energy resource expansion is happening in both large-scale and small-scale settings from rooftop solar panels in homes to giant offshore solar and wind farms that sell power back to the grid. In some areas such as California, entire communities are relying on renewable energy as their sole power supply.

Renewable Energy Sources or Renewable Resources

Renewable energy sources or renewable resources include:

Solar Energy

Sun energy has been used for thousands of years to dry foods, stay warm, and grow crops. Recently, it has been converted to electricity to be used in both small-scale and large-scale settings.

More on this is highlighted below.

Wind Energy

From old-fashioned windmills to today’s large turbines taller than skyscrapers, the wind has been an energy source for a long time now.

Turbines with wide diameters and long blades can be found in farms all over the world and are used to generate electricity by using wind to turn the turbine blades which then feed an electric generator and produce electricity.

Wind turbines in the middle of the farm collecting wind energy with the cloudy sky in the background.

(Image: EdWhiteImages15)

Wind, accounting for more than 9.2% of the total electricity generation in the US, has become one of the cheapest sources of energy in the nation.2 States that harness the most wind power include Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and California.

Wind turbines are flexible in that they can be mounted anywhere with high wind speed such as on open plains, on hilltops, or offshore in open water.

Hydroelectric Power

This accounts for the largest renewable electricity source in the US, though wind energy is cutting it close. Hydropower generates from water.7

Typically, this water is either a fast-moving river, a waterfall, or water falling rapidly from a high point, and the force from the water speed spins a generator’s turbine which then converts it to electricity.

All around the world, mega-dams or large hydroelectric plants are often considered nonrenewable energy sources.

These mega dams affect the environment and wildlife habitats by reducing and diverting natural flows, therefore restricting access for human and animal populations that rely on those water bodies.

However, small hydroelectric power plants are considered renewable because they do not affect water flow and cause very little environmental damage.

Biomass Power

Biomass refers to organic materials that come from animals and plants including trees, waste wood, and crops. When you burn biomass, you release its chemical energy as heat which can then generate electricity using a steam turbine.

But, is wood a renewable resource? Biomass is considered renewable because trees and plants can regenerate after a certain period. However, if used in excess, they may cause adverse environmental effects such as desertification and climate change.

Geothermal Power

The earth’s core is very hot, almost as hot as the sun. Geothermal power is obtained from drilling deep wells to access very hot underground water which is then brought to the surface as a hydrothermal resource.

The water is pumped through a turbine which converts the energy into electricity. Geothermal plants have low emissions and the steam and water used are always pumped back into the reservoir.

Disadvantages of Renewable Energy

Sometimes, the disadvantages of renewable energy make them infeasible solutions.

Wind energy farm with wind turbines in grid-like arrange with the sunset on the background.

(Image: Amol Mande16)

These disadvantages include:

  1. Small electric generation capacity: Experts still face challenges of generating large power quantities from renewable energy sources as opposed to nonrenewable energy sources which generate a lot of power very fast.
  2. It’s sometimes unreliable: Some energy sources depend on weather conditions such as wind and solar. This means that there are times when you won’t get enough energy supply.
  3. They have low efficiency levels: Most renewable energy technology is new to the market which means it lacks much needed efficiency.
  4. Requires a lot of capital to install
  5. Takes a lot of space to install
  6. Expensive energy storage costs
  7. Sometimes it’s not a commercially viable option: The high installation costs and low power generation capacity makes them unfeasible for some regions such as cities and other large urban areas.
  8. Generates pollution though in small amounts
  9. Affects the environment

What Is Non Renewable Energy?

Nonrenewable energy,8 also called dirty energy refers to finite and exhaustible energy sources. This means that the resources are only available in limited amounts.

Is natural gas renewable? The answer to that question is no.

Natural gas is among fossil fuels like oil and coal which are exhaustible energy resources. For example, when you pump gas at a gas station you are using a finite resource derived from crude oil that has been around for a long time.

Besides being exhaustible, nonrenewable energy resources are only available in some specific regions in the world making them plentiful in some countries more than others.3 In contrast, renewable energy is available in every country.

For example, everyone everywhere can access sunshine and wind. As such, a country that prioritizes renewable energy improves its national security by decreasing its reliance on exports from nations that are rich in fossil fuels.

Most nonrenewable energy sources pose a danger to human health, animal welfare, and the environment. For example, Canada’s boreal forest was strip-mined because of oil drilling.

The technology required for mining fracking gas causes water pollution and earthquakes. Moreover, coal power plants release greenhouse gasses and pollute the air around them.

All these activities among others are major contributors to global warming.

Solar System: What Is Solar Energy?

Here are all the solar energy facts you need to know.

First, “What is solar energy?” This is the energy from the sun that is then converted to electrical or thermal energy.9

Close-up image of solar panel with the reflection of the sun on it.

(Image: Photo by Rachel Renaud, U.S. Department of Energy17)

The sun provides more energy in an hour than what the whole world uses in a year. Solar energy is used in many ways such as heating homes and businesses, warming water, and powering devices.

Is Solar Energy a Renewable Resource: How Does the Sun Produce Energy?

So how does the sun produce energy? The nuclear fusion taking place in the sun is what creates solar energy.10

This fusion occurs as a result of hydrogen atoms’ protons colliding violently with the sun’s core and then fusing together to create helium atoms.4 This process also called the PP chain reaction (Proton-Proton), emits a significant energy amount.

In the core of the sun, 620 million metric hydrogen atoms are fused every second.

The PP chain reaction occurs in stars that are similar to the sun which provides them with continuous heat and energy. They have an average temperature of 7 million degrees Fahrenheit.

This nuclear fusion releases high energy amounts in the form of particles and waves and sun energy is constantly moving from the sun to the rest of the solar system. The constant energy flow partially answers the question; is solar energy a renewable resource?

Heat, light, and energy flow to the earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation which is then captured by mirrors or photovoltaic solar panels.

Types of Solar Energy

As mentioned previously, solar energy captures electromagnetic radiation from the sun and converts it to either heat or electric energy.11 Solar energy technologies have two main types: Concentrating Solar-thermal Power (CSP) and photovoltaics (PV)

Photovoltaic Technology: This technology is what builds regular solar panels. As the sun shines onto the panel, the cells in the panel absorb sunlight energy.

The cells then convert this energy to electrical charges that move in response to the cell’s internal electrical field causing the flow of electricity.

Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power Technology: These systems use mirrors to generate heat by reflecting and concentrating sunlight onto receivers that convert the solar energy into heat which are used to create electricity and stored for later use.

This technology is mostly used in large power plants.

Is Solar Energy a Renewable Resource: Is Solar Power Renewable?

Though the sun is a constant to the earth, harnessing its power is still a growing concept. The current technology in the market has a wide range of problems and you may wonder, is solar energy a renewable resource or is solar power renewable?

Well despite the problems that solar power technology encounters, the sun is consistent, free, clean, and a great source of power that has been producing energy for billions of years. This means that yes, solar energy is indeed renewable.

Why is solar energy renewable? The sun has been a constant source of energy for generations and will continuously provide energy for more generations to come.

Hopefully, the forthcoming generations will have better technologies to harness solar energy.

Advantages of Solar Energy: Why Is Solar Energy Good?

The advantages of solar energy are endless, and each of them is a reason why solar energy is good. As a renewable source, solar energy has a key role in mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gasses which is a critical issue in protecting the ecosystem, wildlife, and humans.5

These advantages include:

Renewable Energy Source

The most important benefit of solar power is that it’s a renewable energy source. Additionally, it can be harnessed in any area around the world as is available every day.

Solar Panel in the middle of the farm helping to pump stock water tanks by producing electricity.

(Image: USDA NRCS Montana18)

If you want to know; if solar energy is a renewable source, the answer is yes, we cannot run out of sun energy. The sun has been available for billions of years and if scientists are to be believed will be available for billions of years more.

Solar Energy Saves Money

People are looking for ways to save money because of the current economic turmoil. Installing solar energy contributes to saving money as it helps decrease net metering programs, electricity bills, and federal solar tax credits.

Here are some details on how people save money with solar energy:

Low electricity bills: You can go completely off the grid by installing solar panels on your rooftop and using it as the sole source of electricity. You can also contribute to a community solar farm which will reduce your monthly electric bills in the long run.

Solar rebate programs: The programs are similar to rebates through consumer purchases. You will get 5%-20% cash back when you send via mail a rebate form of a newly bought solar array.

Net metering programs: These programs allow households with excess solar energy to sell it to their local utility and earn some credit. Now, the homeowner will get zero charges or monthly negative electricity bills.

Additionally, you will not need to pay for battery storage for the solar array installation.

Solar Feed-in Tariff: In some states, you can monetize solar electricity by selling power using above-market rates and obtaining credits or cash.

Federal solar tax credit:12 You can claim a federal tax credit for solar energy on your income tax for up to 30% of the solar system installation cost. For example, if the array cost $10,000 then you can reduce your tax liability by $3,000.

This amount decreases the installation upfront cost and speeds up the solar energy investment payback period.

Saves the Environment

The usual traditional production of electricity is not a great or environmentally friendly process. Burning gas, oil, and coal are very harmful to the surrounding areas.

For instance, a portion of the production of electricity generates excessive carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions. The extraction of fossil fuels from the ground causes pollution.

These two factors contribute to climate change which affects all areas around the globe.

Considering these issues, it’s safe to infer that using renewable energy sources saves the environment. Solar energy generates renewable, clean, and pure energy from the sun which is a perfect alternative to finite sources such as gas or coal.

It also reduces greenhouse gasses and carbon footprint worldwide. Moreover, once you have installed the solar panels, the electricity production is emission-free.

Improves Home Value

Houses with solar panels installed have increased market rate prices because the buyer will save on electricity bills and earn money selling power to a utility. Solar systems in residential homes are highly valued and increase the resale value of the property.

Some homes can be worth $15,000 more than their neighbors because the owners have installed solar systems.

Low Maintenance Costs

It’s easy to install solar systems and once they are up and running, they require very little maintenance. You can use the same solar provider to handle both installation and maintenance.

However, you can maintain the system all by yourself by keeping them clean and in good physical condition. Additionally, they don’t have moving parts that wear out with time.

How long do solar panels last? The average lifespan of a solar system is 30 years.

This lifespan together with low maintenance costs means that you will get your money’s worth several times over by investing in solar panels.

Generates Electricity in Any Climate

Though solar energy is occasionally subject to weather disruptions, it can generate electricity in any climate. While cloudy days reduce electricity production by the solar array, cold days will not interfere with productivity.

Conditions such as rain and snowfall might be even beneficial to the panel as the water and melted snow clean the panel. Additionally, snow reflects light increasing the amount of light heating the panel and enhancing electricity production.

Related Reading: Do Solar Panels Work on Cloudy Days, at Night, in Rain? Yes & No (Here’s How)

Diverse Applications

Solar energy has diverse purposes, not just generating electricity. It can be a source of heat.

Solar energy can be integrated into building materials such as transparent solar windows or additional roof covering. Solar energy can also be harnessed for crop production in cold seasons like winter.

Disadvantages of Solar Energy: Problems With Solar Energy

The question, “Is solar energy a renewable resource?” has been answered. But what are the disadvantages of solar energy?

The disadvantages of solar energy are decreasing as the industry continues to develop. However, there are some dirty truths about solar energy that need to be gotten rid of as time goes by.

While technological advances are making solar power mainstream, there are some major issues to be dealt with. These problems with solar energy include:

High Initial Installation Costs

It’s very expensive to buy and install solar arrays. How to make solar panels includes very rare raw materials.

Whether you want to invest in community solar farms or buy a simple array for your home, you will find that it’s very expensive even with government incentives. You will need to pay for wiring, batteries, solar panels, inverter and installation.

High initial costs are a challenge and hopefully, solar technologies will develop and make the installation cost cheaper.

Weather Dependent

Although you can still collect solar energy on rainy and cloudy days, the array’s efficiency drops significantly. Solar panels are sunlight and weather dependent therefore only effective on sunny days or in areas that get a lot of sun activity.

Solar energy cannot be collected during the night, unlike other energy sources that give out 24-hour energy production.

Environmental Issues

The potential environmental effects of solar power are classified under numerous categories.

It’s important to note that these impacts are brought about by large solar arrays such as community solar farms and utility-scale solar farms, not the small arrays installed in individual homes.

Solar farm in Colorado with rows or solar panel systems with mountains and blue sky in the background.

(Image: Photo by Scott Ely, U.S. Department of Energy 19)

These environmental issues include:

Ecological and land use impacts: When building utility-scale solar farms, large pieces of land are needed for the facilities. As a result, the construction interferes with existing land use and can affect other land purposes such as wildlife habitat or recreational management areas.

The energy systems may affect land through exploration, disposal, extractions, and manufacturing of solar array materials increasing the energy footprint. In some cases, the land that was once used for energy production may require significant input of time and energy before it goes back into its pre-disturbed state.

Some changes that solar arrays have on land are completely irreversible.

Soil, water, and air resources impact: Solar facility construction on large pieces of land includes clearing and grading which destroys the environment and results in alteration and compaction of the soil.13

Additionally, central tower systems will need water for cooling which will strain the available water supply. Chemical spills from solar manufacturing organizations, though rare, have an adverse effect on the surrounding areas.

The materials used to build solar arrays such as heavy metals are difficult to collect (mining) and dispose of, and cause a health hazard to plants, animals, and humans.

All the above reasons indicate that while there’s a positive answer to the question, is solar energy a renewable resource, there are downsides that must be considered before embracing the technology on a large scale.

Frequently Asked Questions About Is Solar Energy a Renewable Resource?

Where Does Solar Energy Come From?

Solar energy comes from the sun.

Is the Sun Renewable or Nonrenewable?

Sun is a renewable resource.

Why Should You Invest in Sustainable Solar Energy?

Sustainable solar energy has no adverse effect on climate change as opposed to finite sources such as fossil fuels.

Is Solar Energy a Renewable Resource? How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

Yes, solar energy is a renewable source, and solar panels can last up to 30 years.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar cells in the solar panels convert light rays from the sun into electricity.

Solar Energy Sustainability: Is Solar Energy Sustainable?

Yes, solar energy is sustainable because the sun is always available.

How Do You Determine Whether Solar Energy Is Renewable or Nonrenewable?

A source is renewable when it can replenish itself. Since the sun rises every day, it’s a renewable resource.


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