Pros and Cons of Solar Energy (& When the Disadvantages Outweigh Benefits)

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

Solar Panels | April 1, 2024

Woman measures the pros and cons of solar energy by thinking about electricity the planet, carbon footprints and other factors that outline what are the disadvantages of solar energy and advantages of solar energy and why is solar energy bad?

Discussions about the pros and cons of solar energy can seem contradictory or confusing, because they rarely examine when the disadvantages outweigh the benefits.

It is true that solar energy has the potential to increase the global carbon footprint, but electricity generated from a renewable resource (like the sun) can be more beneficial to the planet than those that rely on fossil fuels.

When honestly evaluating the pros and cons of solar energy, individuals can move from a position of confusion and uniformed acceptance to one that actually establishes effective energy solutions for the world.

This complete guide examines both the advantages and drawbacks of solar energy, exposing the problems associated with blanketing the earth with enough solar panels to handle the current energy needs.

With a complete analysis of the pros and cons of solar energy, you can help identify where solar power will work most effectively, as well as the steps necessary to reduce or neutralize its drawbacks.

Pros and Cons of Solar Energy (Pros and Cons of Solar Farms)

Solar energy is an excellent and wonderful source of renewable electricity. When used to help (or fully) power homes, it can not only reduce the drains on the current energy grid, but also lower homeowner’s yearly expenses.

But, there are drawbacks to employing solar farms to replace to enhance current grids.

The space required for the panels themselves can have a huge ecological cost to the environment, preventing plant growth and creating a number of ecological issues.

Solar panels that occupies a massive area of land.

(Image: Quang Nguyen Vinh22)

Solar farms have considerable upfront costs, and an obstacle to building solar farms.

Unlike photovoltaic systems, solar farms rely primarily on direct light. Indirect sunlight is useless to solar farms, which convert direct sunlight into highly-concentrated light.

The ideal climate for a solar farm is moderate temperatures with plenty of direct sunlight. When you build a solar farm where these conditions are not met, you risk doing more harm than good to the environment.

Moreover, regardless of where a solar farm is placed, the land beneath it suffers.

But, that doesn’t mean that solar energy when applied to residential settings, has the same disadvantage. In fact, the opposite is true.

Pros of Solar Energy

When solar panels are installed on the roof of an existing structure, there is no further damage to the environment.

And, from an environmental standpoint, one of the most important pros of solar energy is that solar energy is a renewable resource.

Unlike finite sources of energy such as fossil fuels, there is no reasonable danger of running out of sunlight. The sun will continue to burn for billions of years, which is a sharp contrast to supplies of oil and coal.

Solar energy systems have low maintenance and upkeep costs. Photovoltaic systems have few moving parts, and scheduled care is often limited to cleaning and monitoring.

Advantages of Solar Energy

From a financial standpoint, one of the key advantages of solar energy is that proper installation and maintenance of photovoltaic systems can lower monthly electricity costs.

Significantly efficient photovoltaic systems can lead to the electric company paying the owner for the surplus energy that the photovoltaic system generates.

And, with enough batteries, solar can make someone completely free from the power grid.

Benefits of Solar Energy

Versatility is another of the key benefits of solar energy. Solar energy operators can set up solar thermal equipment to capture the sun’s heat or photovoltaic systems to capture the sun’s light.

Solar energy operators can use the collected energy for a variety of purposes including – but not limited to – powering their homes, recharging batteries, and cleaning dirty water.

Solar energy panels can also increase a property’s value.

Aerial photo that shows a big house with several solar panels installed on its roof.

(Image: Kindel Media24)

Buyers seeking lower electricity and maintenance costs may gravitate to houses with pre-existing photovoltaic systems.

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,19 solar panels can raise the value of a residential property by up to $15,000.5

Disadvantages of Solar Energy

Among the disadvantages of solar energy, the most prominent and prohibitive is the carbon footprint of the manufacturing and disposal of the panels, the upfront costs associated with purchasing and installing the equipment and the environmental costs.

Solar panels are energy intensive to manufacture, and mining the materials for the systems also generates massive emissions.

Solar energy equipment, such as solar panels and solar power charge controllers, require high-quality materials and skilled labor to produce. And, the batteries needed to store energy also have a high eco-cost.

In addition, “soft costs” such as permit fees, inspection fees, and overhead increase costs even further. Inclement weather can impact the effectiveness of photovoltaic systems.

Though solar panels can collect indirect sunlight, consistently cloudy days and long-lasting storms can dramatically reduce the amount of energy that solar panels collect. Inclement weather has less effect, though, on thermal solar systems, which collect energy from heat instead of light.

Solar panels take up a significant amount of physical space, which can pose problems for small areas.

Not all roofs and walls are suitable for mounting solar panels, and multiple solar panels are often necessary to meet or exceed the energy needs of residential and industrial locations.

Solar panels can increase carbon footprints when used improperly or when underused

And, the manufacturing, transporting, and safely disposing or recycling solar panels releases huge amounts of pollution into the atmosphere.

Solar Panels Environmental Impact

Achieving environmentally positive benefits from solar panels relies on operating them at high efficiency for the duration of their lifespan.

This is because the manufacturing and disposal processes for solar panels generate wastes and energy expenditures that can negatively impact the environment when solar panels are either not efficiently used for their full life cycle or are installed without considering the long-term ramifications of their creation and installation.

Maximizing the benefits of solar power, or even achieving any benefit at all, requires thorough analyses of solar panels’ environmental impact.

Creating, transporting, and installing a solar panel comes with significant environmental upfront costs.

4 workers wearing their safety suits as they install solar panels.

(Image: Hoan Ngoc23)

Each solar panel manufactured and installed releases 18 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the average solar panel contains roughly 15 grams of materials that are toxic to humans, which must be mined.6

Manufacturing solar panels and routinely cleaning them use water and studies from Duke University have calculated that the manufacturing water cost of photovoltaic plants is 7.54 gallons per megawatt-hour.7,15

One negative aspect that photovoltaic systems share with other energy sources is that creating and installing photovoltaic systems can have unexpected or negative impacts on the environment.

Converting land for photovoltaic system usage can affect the soil, flora, fauna, and temperature of the area around it.

Are Solar Panels Toxic?

The minimal amount of toxic components in solar panels provides a little risk of harm to you during their manufacturing or operation.

However, improperly disposing of solar panels can lead to their toxic elements seeping into water and land nd mining the materials is also hazardous.

Visit the Environmental Protection Agency for additional information about the toxicity of solar panels and proper disposal procedures.16

Are Solar Panels Dangerous?

When analyzing the pros and cons of solar energy, you must not focus only on the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario relies on haphazard implementation and shoddy operation, and the best-case scenario does not account for situations that cannot be foreseen or mitigated.

Solar panels are almost never dangerous without mishandling or negligence.

Types of Solar Panels

The most vital component that differentiates the different types of solar panels is the type of photovoltaic cells applied to their surface.

Photo of a crystalline silicon solar cell.

(Image: Hhach20)

Four of the most common photovoltaic cell types are:1

Cell Type How the Cell Is Made Cell’s Optimal Efficiency
Crystalline silicon cells Processing raw silicon into thin wafers 27.6%
Single-junction gallium arsenide cells Growing or extracting gallium arsenide single crystals, then processing the crystals into thin wafers 30.8%
Multijunction cells Layering cells to absorb multiple wavelengths of solar energy 47.6%
Thin films Placing thin layers of photovoltaic material on substrates (i.e. plastic, glass) 23.4%

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has detailed technical information about photovoltaic cells.18

Carbon Footprint Solar Panels

Calculating the carbon footprint solar panels requires the assumption that solar panels are operated and maintained properly throughout their peak operating lifecycle, which can be up to 35 years.2

High-quality solar panels that operate efficiently and are safely decommissioned or recycled can have a net reduction on the solar panel owner’s carbon footprint.

When misused, solar panels can increase the solar panel owner’s carbon footprint as well as the amount of pollution in the atmosphere. Failure to use solar panels long enough to offset their production and transportation is a common way that solar panels could be an environmental detriment.

Subpar operation, which includes little direct sunlight and maintenance issues stemming from poor monitoring or errors during installation, can significantly lower a solar panel’s lifespan, which also lowers or even negates its environmental benefits.

Columbia Climate School offers a checklist of 37 actions that communities and individuals can perform. Many of the listed actions can have immediate beneficial impacts on carbon footprint.14

Size of Standard Solar Panel

The size of standard solar panel can be a misleading metric. The solar cells in the solar panel and the solar panel’s intended use are strong factors in a solar panel’s size.

This article will focus on solar panels used most commonly for residential buildings; solar panel sizes for other uses may vary dramatically.

A small solar panel on top of a roof while being hit of the direct sunlight.

(Image: Kindel Media21)

As of 2023, the majority of solar cells are 156 millimeters in diameter (roughly 6.14 inches).3

Depending on a residential facility’s energy needs, common solar cell counts for a solar panel are 60 cells (in a six-by-ten grid) or 72 cells (in a six-by-twelve grid).

Factoring in every part of a solar panel leads to lengths between 60 and 80 inches (1 to 1.5 meters), widths of 40 inches (roughly 1 meter), thicknesses of 1 to 2 inches (25 to 50 millimeters), and weights of around 40 pounds (nearly 18 kilograms).

Solar Farm Income Per Acre

Many factors, including the size of the solar farm, the quality of its components, and how well the solar farm is maintained, influence the solar farm income per acre.

A sensible estimated range for a solar farm’s income is between $21,250 and $42,500 for every acre that is actively and optimally collecting solar energy.

Pros and Cons of Solar Energy

Solar energy systems lead to socioeconomic effects as well as environmental effects.

At least 37 countries produce at least one gigawatt-per-hour via solar energy as of 2020.8

That provides at least 37 ways to track the large-scale effects of solar energy on a country’s economy. Creating solar energy system components increases the number of jobs.

Graphic that illustrates the pros which are environmentally friendly, renewable, cost-effective, low maintenance, and off-grid power, and cons which are upfront cost, weather-dependent, manufacturing impact, energy shortage, and land usage, in using of solar energy.

Though the hardware costs and the soft costs of solar panels may be offsetting, the jobs created to complete the hardware and administrative tasks are beneficial to their communities.

And although government incentives to adopt solar energy can remove financial barriers and reward global stewardship, they can also have a sizeable impact on a government’s budget.

Though the long-term benefits may be worthwhile from a financial perspective, short-term cuts and reallocation is sometimes necessary.

Pros and Cons of Solar Panels in Texas

The pros and cons of solar panels in Texas are the same as the pros and cons of solar energy on a global level. However, the amount of direct sunlight that Texas receives makes it an ideal state to implement solar energy systems, if the environmental cost is ignored.

As of January 2021, Texas has 23 functional solar farms generating at least 20 megawatts per hour.9

Adding the total contribution from solar farms and photovoltaic systems can result in Texas becoming the largest generator of solar power in the nation, even more than California, with estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimating an output of 22,787 terawatts-per-hour a year.10

A significant amount of Texas’s potential power generation would be from concentrated solar power plants, which involve offsetting their upfront costs and focusing on areas where the climate provides large quantities of direct sunlight.

The estimate also relies on installing solar panels on many residents’ rooftops, assuming that financial constraints and inadequate roofs do not substantially hinder the effort.

However, the current solar grid was ineffective when huge snowstorms blanketed the state in recent years.

Pros and Cons of Solar Panels in California

California’s high volume of direct sunlight and its widespread implementation of solar energy mean that some of the pros and cons of solar panels in California are relatively unique to the state.

Overproduction of solar energy is not a common topic when discussing the pros and cons of solar energy, but California deals with more solar energy than its power grid can handle during the summer months.

California offers many government-backed incentives to urge groups and individuals to embrace solar power. Tax breaks, net metering, and government mandates are among the measures to promote solar power.

Californians also have the option of entering power purchase agreements to access solar energy. Power purchase agreements involve a solar company performing and paying for the placement of a solar energy system on the customer’s property in exchange for the customer paying the solar company for the generated energy.

California’s Contractors State License Board provides additional information on how California consumers can acquire a solar energy system,13 as well as pros and cons of each method.

Though power purchase agreements are meant to remove obstacles to installing solar energy systems, the implementation of a power purchase agreement can lead to long-term financial loss and similar complications.

A solar company entering into a power purchase agreement takes the financial and physical responsibilities of installing the solar energy system.

This means, though, that ownership of the solar energy system belongs to the solar company, as well as receipt of government incentives and the ability to set the terms of the power purchase agreement.

Pros and Cons of Solar Panels in Georgia

Though the physical pros and cons of solar panels in Georgia are the same, Georgia’s current implantation currently makes the state a poor candidate for solar power.

Unlike other states with solar power, Georgia offers few incentives; there are no tax breaks, and net metering is limited.

Power purchase agreements are possible, but the pros and cons of purchase power agreements in California also apply to those in Georgia. In addition, Georgia’s current implementation of residential solar power has both highlighted and exacerbated the state’s wealth gap.

At least 72% of residential rooftop solar installations are on houses whose household income is above average. And rooftop solar installations are not an option for renters, which constitute 55% of Georgia’s residents.11

Where Are Solar Panels Made?

When wondering, where are solar panels made, the distinction must be made that most available answers do not involve the number of panels. The two most common metrics are the number of solar cells and the electricity generated.

This can be understood when considering that solar panels vary considerably by their solar cell count and their efficiency.

Five of the top ten solar cell producers operate in China, responsible for over 5.7 gigawatts of energy production.

The remaining five operate in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, and Germany, producing 1.4 gigawatts, 728 megawatts, 595 megawatts, and 586 megawatts, respectively.12

How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

The quality of the solar panel and the care taken to maintain it determine how long do solar panels last.

A high-quality solar panel treated with routine maintenance and monitoring can operate at peak efficiency between 25 and 30 years.4

Do Solar Panels Work on Cloudy Days?

Solar panels can collect both direct light and indirect sunlight.

So, when asking, do solar panels work on cloudy days, the answer is yes, by capturing and converting indirect sunlight is far less efficient than capturing and converting direct sunlight.

Photo of a small house with solar panels on its roof during a cloudy day.

(Image: Alex Bierwagen25)

Areas whose skies are consistently obscured by clouds and dust are poor choices for solar panel installations.

Indirect sunlight is of no use to concentrated solar power. Concentrated solar focuses direct light to generate electricity, and indirect sunlight just cannot accomplish this task.

Related Reading: How To Install Solar Panels on Roof

Why Is Solar Energy Bad? (Pros and Cons of Solar Energy)

If you’re asking, why is solar energy bad, know that there are many drawbacks to this type of renewable electricity generation.

However, overall, when installed in a residential setting, solar panels are a very good thing for the planet. The Federal Trade Commission provides a helpful outline for homeowners pondering whether to install solar panels on their property.17

The environmental detriment involved in creating solar panels, the high upfront costs, and the potential risks to plants and animals are tangible problems with solar energy.

Successful solar energy systems require effort and research in order to lead to positive environmental and financial impacts. And reaping the benefits of a solar energy system is a long-term project, similar to planting seeds that can become mature trees and soak up excess carbon dioxide within 20 years.

By understanding the real pros and cons of solar energy, you can make the best decision for your home, in order to lower your carbon footprint.


References

1National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). Best Research-Cell Efficiency Chart. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/pv/cell-efficiency.html>

2Solar Energy Technologies Office. (2023). End-of-Life Management for Solar Photovoltaics. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/end-life-management-solar-photovoltaics>

3Wikipedia. (2023, March 9). Solar Cell.Wikipedia. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell>

4Solar One. (2021, February 03). Solar Photovoltaic Systems: A Guide for Long-Term Ownership and Maintenance. The Official Website of the City of New York. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://www.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/services/solar-pv-system-owners-guide.pdf>

5Solar Energy Technologies Office. (2023). Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/homeowners-guide-going-solar>

6Fischer, J. (2021, April). Comparing Wind and Solar Energy Impacts on the Environment: A LCA Approach Using openLCA Platform. Bryant University. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://digitalcommons.bryant.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1025&context=honors_science>

7Montgomery, Z. (2009, November 30). Environmental Impact Study: CSP vs. CdTe thin fil photovoltaics. Duke University. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/1551/Environmental?sequence=1>

8Wikipedia. (2023, February 9). Solar power by country. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_by_country>

9Wikipedia. (2022, December 23). List of Power Stations in Texas. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_power_stations_in_Texas#Solar_farms>

10Wikipedia. (2023, March 1). Solar Power in Texas. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Texas#Potential>

11Behnke, C. (2022, December 14). Blocking Out the Sun: Restricting Rooftop Solar in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia State University. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1189&context=geosciences_theses>

12Wikipedia. (2023, March 2). List of photovoltaics companies. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_photovoltaics_companies>

13California’s Contractors State License Board. (2023). Solar Smart. Department of Consumer Affairs. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://www.cslb.ca.gov/consumers/solar_smart/>

14Cho, R. (2022, September 19). The 37 Easiest Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint (Animated Graphic). Columbia Climate School. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/09/19/the-37-easiest-ways-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint-animated-graphic/>

15Duke University. (2023). Duke University Libraries Homepage. DukeSpace. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/>

16Environmental Protection Agency. (2022, October 25). Solar Panel Frequent Questions. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/hw/solar-panel-frequent-questions>

17Federal Trade Commission. (2015, June). Solar Power for Your Home. Consumer Advice. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/solar-power-your-home>

18National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). National Renewable Energy Laboratory Homepage. NREL Transforming Energy. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/>

19U.S. Department of Energy. (2023). U.S. Department of Energy Homepage. ENERGY.GOV. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/>

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21Kindel Media. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/industry-house-roof-technology-9875439/>

22Quang Nguyen Vinh. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/solar-panels-on-green-grass-field-under-the-blue-sky-6876536/>

23Hoan Ngoc. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/solar-technicians-installing-solar-panels-6961120/>

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25Alex Bierwagen. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/Uuz7yti7SQA>