The Barriers to a Solar Revolution
As humans, we’ve harnessed the power of the sun from as early as the 7th Century BC, and yet we still haven’t managed to build the infrastructure to gain all of our electricity needs from our greatest resource. When it comes to it, we do come up with a lot of excuses. Solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of energy. If anything, the war in Ukraine has highlighted our need to achieve energy security sooner rather than later. To properly focus our efforts on solar power, we need to get over the following barriers.
The main excuse that people are quick to point out is that we can only generate solar power during the day. While we can use fossil fuels really easily at any time of day or night to generate power, we have to wait for the conditions to be met for renewables.
In this way, storage and connectivity are issues that both need to be addressed. Intermittency can be resolved with proper planning. The predictability of when we can generate power through solar doesn’t change - and hasn’t since the dawn of time - so we can easily plan around this. If we plan power management and infrastructure around the predictability of seasonal changes and the day/night cycle, we can store and use the energy when needed.
Linked to the previous point, storage is an issue because if you’re not using solar energy as you produce it, it can be wasted. With no storage, you’re unable to utilise renewable energy when you’re unable to produce it.
While solar batteries are available, they need to be produced using lithium, which is in high demand because of the rise in popularity of EVs. Lithium is considered to be part of a polluting and dangerous mining industry, which doesn’t do wonders for the green credentials solar panels are trying to push.
If you don’t own a solar battery, one expert suggests using your EV as a household storage battery for solar energy generation, which you can then draw on when you need it after the sun’s gone down.
So if lithium is such a problem, what are the alternatives? Electrolysed hydrogen is shaping up to be a battery storage replacement, but this is a long way off practical consideration. Technical innovation needs to keep up to give us suitable substitutes.
Solar power is easiest to generate where the sun is shining the most, but this creates its own barrier as this can be in areas disconnected from civilisation, like deserts. This calls for proper infrastructure so the energy can be moved from sparsely populated areas to big cities where the electricity is needed.
Unfortunately, this is a massive undertaking as it will cost a tidy sum to create the network in the first place, which may in itself cross privately owned land. Not only this, but the complexity of our national grids needs to be increased. At the moment, energy has to go from one place to where it’s needed via transportation cables. This may not need to happen in future, but for now is a pipedream.
Perhaps the biggest barrier of all is how we’re at the whim of the politicians who govern us. The solar revolution has a total dependence on politics and various political views. It would require trillions to accelerate the adoption of solar to its required level, which certain individuals are unwilling to do.
Climate denialism is a massive factor in the world of politics, most likely because of how various politicians have money in fossil fuels and don’t want to miss out on any profits they can guarantee themselves. However, there’s only so long politicians can deny climate change when cheap, abundant renewable energy will save so much money.
Solar panels are manufactured in an energy-intensive process using finite resources. Unfortunately, it adds to the unsustainable problem before the solution is even created as they rely on crystalline silicon, which can’t be used in its pure form. The silicon has to be treated before it can be used for solar power generation. Almost half of all solar panels are made using coal power.
While research is being done to look at alternatives, this problem still persists for the moment. This links in with the final barrier.
The life expectancy of solar panels is around 25 years. The issue people face at the end of this time is how to dispose of them. Solar panels can end up in landfill, which can leak hazardous waste into the environment. Recycling them for their silicon and silver isn’t an easy process, so it might not even be considered as a viable option.
The solar industry needs to work on a circular economy in order to mitigate its environmental impact. If we can ensure manufacturing and waste do not limit its potential, solar can become even greener than it already is.