Solar Energy Arguments For and Against
About the arguments for and against the use of solar power as an alternative energy source.
HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
Coal is dirty, oil and natural gas are scarce, nuclear power is dangerous--and then there is solar energy: safe, clean, abundant, and free. Within a two-week period, the earth gets as much energy from the sun as is stored in all known reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas. One day of average sunlight on Lake Erie surpasses the total energy used by the U.S. in a day. Although questions have been raised about the safety and environmental soundness of a few proposed large-scale solar collection devices, in general the collection and use of solar energy appear to be far safer, both for the environment and for human beings, than nuclear power and the collection and use of fossil fuels.
Moreover, solar heating and cooling do not require transporting energy hundreds or thousands of miles, with resulting loss of energy, added expense, unpredictability, and dependence on large energy networks.
Solar energy has two characteristics which make its use tricky. It is diffuse and so must be collected in some way, and it is intermittent and so must be stored. While sunlight itself is free, the technology for concentrating and storing it is expensive.
Small-scale use of solar energy, mainly to heat and cool buildings and to heat water, has not caught on in the past chiefly for that reason: high initial cost. A 1973 study cited by Wilson Clark in Energy for Survival (1974) showed that while solar-heated houses would have been more economical than electrically heated houses in six of eight representative American cities, they still could not compete with houses heated by fuel oil or gas.
But as oil and gas prices have risen, solar devices have become more competitive (most solar houses still have backup nonsolar systems). Increased demand is already leading to increased mass production, which lowers prices. Mass production also leads to the development of quality controls and maintenance services, both of major importance, because past solar systems have not always proved either reliable or durable.
One factor that could slow the momentum of solar home heating and cooling is bank lending rates and policies, which need to take into account the high initial (but low subsequent) cost of solar heating systems. Widespread use of solar systems would also require zoning laws to prevent buildings from blocking each other's sunlight.
The problems of solar home-heating systems pale beside the problems of large-scale conversion of sunlight into electricity. The technology for conversion exists, but so far it has been prohibitively expensive for general use. Large-scale production of silicon solar cells, developed for spacecraft, would not only be costly; the production process itself would consume considerable energy.
While some researchers continue efforts to lower the cost and improve the efficiency of solar cells or to develop alternatives like thermal conversion plants, other researchers try to decide where solar power plants ought to be located. There have been proposals to put them on land, in the sea, and in space. And there are problems with all these proposals: their cost, the amount of energy and land required to build the plants, and their environmental impact. Government commitment to experimental testing is just beginning.
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