What Are The Benefits Of Solar Energy?

Thinking of adding solar energy to your place? This natural energy source is becoming increasingly popular as a way to potentially reduce both your home energy bill, as well as its carbon footprint.
Solar panels on a house blue sky

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Currently, Australia has a capacity of over 7.8 gigawatts of solar energy capacity, and this number is set to double by 2020. On this page we’re going to explore both the advantages, and disadvantages, of using solar power for your home or business.

The advantages of solar power

Solar power systems have several advantages. The biggest one being that solar panels produce zero carbon emissions once they’ve been manufactured. Another great advantage of solar panels is that they have the potential to lower your power bills. On top of this, they can reduce the power grid’s reliance on fossil fuels, and provide remote homes and communities with a degree of energy-independence.

In other words, solar panels are a great way for you to take control of your energy needs.

How can solar power help reduce your energy bills?

Solar energy can potentially help to cut your energy bills in two ways:

1. By using solar energy as a power source, you’ll lower your dependence on your energy provider (which may assist in reducing your energy bills)

2. If your solar power system produces more energy than you use, excess energy will feed back into the main electricity grid. When this happens, your energy retailer will buy this excess electricity at an agreed price (known as a feed-in tariff). This too may help to lower your overall energy expenses

Are there any disadvantages of solar power?

All modern power sources come with pros and cons, and solar power is no exception. Although solar technology has been around for several years, it’s not as efficient as other sources.

For example, most modern solar panels convert around 20% of the energy they receive into power. While this might not seem like much, future technology leaves a lot of room for improvement.

How environmentally friendly are they?

We all want to do as much as we can to protect the environment, so the question then becomes, are solar panels moving us in that direction?

Although solar panels produce zero emissions, their manufacturing does have an environmental impact. For example, building photovoltaic solar panels requires the use of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, and hydrofluoric acid. Both of these substances can be harmful to people and the environment. This process also uses water for cooling, and produces greenhouse gas emissions as a result.

On top of this, not all solar panels are created equal. You can view the 2016-17 Solar Scorecard, to see which companies perform the best from an environmental perspective.

And will they keep the lights on?

If you’re using a grid-connect system, then as long as the grid is up and running, your lights will stay on as long as you need.

However, if your solar panels aren’t connected to the grid, and you’re running an off-grid system, you may need to consider other backup options. Such options include a generator, battery storage, or supplementing your solar panels with other renewables like wind.

How does solar power work?

Grid connected solar power system

When the sun shines, it produces photons. When these photons hit solar power panels, silicon components and conductors inside the panels convert the photons into DC electricity. Next, an inverter converts the DC (Direct Current), into 240V AC (Alternating Current) electricity. This conversion process is what makes the power usable for your home.

A different kind of solar

It’s certainly possible to install a solar-thermal system to heat your water. If you’re using it to generate electricity, then solar thermal remains better suited to large, open areas with large amounts of sunlight.

Photovoltaic, or PV solar, is no longer the only kind of solar energy available. In fact, according to Australia’s Clean Energy Council:

“Concentrated solar thermal (CST) technology harnesses the sun's power to generate electricity. It uses lenses and reflectors to concentrate sunlight, heating a fluid such as water or oil, and then producing steam to drive a turbine.

The advantage of concentrated solar thermal technologies is that they provide a dispatchable energy supply – that is, their power output can be adjusted based on grid demand. This makes them more flexible than traditional solar PV plants.”

Port Augusta in South Australia boasts the largest solar thermal array in the world. It has a maximum output of 150 megawatts, and its normal output is expected to be around 135 megawatts.

In domestic settings, solar thermal systems are currently best suited to heating water. Simple versions of solar thermal heating are also called ‘passive solar heating.’

solar panels on house with blue sky and clouds

The history of solar power

The use of solar power dates back longer than most people realise. In fact, in 1839 the photovoltaic effect was observed by a young French physicist named Edmond Becquerel. Becquerel realised that certain materials gain an electric charge when exposed to sunlight.

In 1883, a prototype solar cell was designed by an American inventor named Charles Fritts. Over the next 69 years, various scientists and inventors made contributions to the field of solar energy. All of this research came to fruition in 1952 when David Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson designed and built the first photovoltaic cell at Bell laboratories in America.

In 2006, the US Department of Energy reported that they had funded a Boeing-Spectrolab project which resulted in the design and creation of a solar cell that functions at 40.7 percent efficiency.

Advances in solar technology continue to occur. In 2016, a research team from ANU/ARC Centre of Excellence CUDOS and the University of California Berkeley demonstrated a new nanomaterial that could harvest energy from surrounding heat as well as direct sunlight.

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