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The Pros and Cons of Solar Energy in 2019

Graphic showing the environmental differences between solar energy and fossil fuels

In short: Researching the pros and cons of going solar can be overwhelming and confusing. So we’ve condensed the most important information to give you a clear understanding of why going solar is one of the best investments you will ever make – even with the cons – for you and the world around you.

Solar power is spreading rapidly, and with lower costs and new technologies, solar may soon become one of the dominant sources of energy on the planet. Because of this rapid expansion, it makes sense to look critically at the pros and cons of solar energy.

In our opinion, the benefits of solar power far outweigh the drawbacks. While solar panels require significant upfront cost, and some pollution is produced during the manufacturing and recycling process, the long-term financial, social, and environmental benefits of solar energy tremendously outweigh these drawbacks.

What are the pros and cons of solar energy?

Pros

  • Energy harnessed from the sun doesn’t deplete any environmental resources
  • Solar energy prices decrease every year
  • A solar panel system will likely save you money over time
  • Many states recognize the value of solar and offer incentives to early adopters
  • Adding solar panels increases your home’s value
  • The solar industry helps the economy and creates good-paying jobs. In 2015, there were 209,000 jobs in solar. In 2018, there were 242,000!

Cons

  • Investing in solar sometimes requires a large upfront cost
  • Depending on where you live, there may be multiple political barriers meant to discourage the use of solar
  • Your roof may not be suitable for solar panels
  • Intermittency and storage technology pose challenges
  • Proper recycling and re-use of solar panels is in its infancy

The pros of solar energy

Energy harnessed from the sun doesn’t deplete any environmental resources, and won’t run out (well, for another 5 billion years). Unlike coal and natural gas, solar panels don’t produce any air pollutants once in operation. They’re also silent, and generally unobtrusive on your roof. Using solar power for 20 years offsets enough carbon as driving a car 100,000 miles. The manufacturing of solar panels does use resources, but not nearly as many as oil and gas. And oil and gas continue to produce carbon dioxide over time.

Solar panel prices decrease every year. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solar prices (all costs included) were $7.34 per watt in 2010. That price has plummeted all the way down to $2.70 per watt as of December 2018, as manufacturing and installations become more efficient and widespread.

To put that into practical terms, the average US homeowner needs a 7-kilowatt home solar system. There are 1,000 watts in a kilowatt.

In 2010: 1,000 x 7.34 x 7 = $51,380
In 2018: 1,000 x 2.70 x 7 = $18,900

As you can see, in just eight years the price of going solar has decreased 63 percent. According to the Department of Energy’s SunShot program, the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for solar will be just $0.03 per kWh in 2030!

Solar panels being manufactured in factory

A solar panel in the making.

A solar panel system will likely save you money over time. Installing solar can significantly reduce or even eliminate your power bill. For some people, financial savings are one of the biggest advantages of solar power. Gaining energy independence from the power company is a huge deal!

We’ve published this handy guide to calculate your savings, and we’ll touch on it a bit here. The gist: Yes, the upfront costs of going solar can be expensive, generally around $19,000 for the average homeowner.

But that doesn’t include:

  • The federal tax credit of 30% (which decreases to 26% in 2020)
  • Any state tax rebates you qualify for
  • The annual 3.5% rising cost of traditional electricity per year
  • The huge reductions in your power bills, or elimination of them

Taking all of the above into account, we’ll create a real-world example.

Remember that 2018 price of $18,900 for solar? With the 30% tax credit, that drops down to $13,230. Let’s say you live in Massachusetts, our number one state for solar. The tax rebate there knocks off 15% with a $1,000 cap, so our new price is $12,230.

If you pay $100 a month for your electricity now, and your new solar system covers all of your energy needs (totally doable with strong net metering policies), that means you’re paying $1,200 a year for power.

So $1,200 into $12,230 is 10.1, which means you might pay back your initial cost in 10 years, except…

Many states recognize the value of solar and offer solar incentives to early adopters. Solar incentives were a huge thing in much of the United States through the mid 2010s, but although most are now used up, some states still have excellent programs in place.

That includes states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, which offer direct payments for solar energy on top of electric bill savings. These payments are called performance-based incentives, and often come in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, or SRECs.

For example, in Massachusetts, the SMART Solar Program will ensure you make as much as $.34 per kWh, including your electric bill credits. Remember that 10-year payback timeframe for MA we mentioned above? With the SMART solar program, that comes down to just 4 years, with over 2 decades of profit after.

With these kinds of incentives, who needs more benefits of solar panels? But wait, there’s more!

Adding solar panels increases your home’s value. Studies show that solar panels add about their post-incentive cost to the value of a home. Of course, that added value decreases each year as the panels age and the panels become slightly less energy efficient.

A solar installation also requires very little maintenance in its lifetime, which is generally expected to be 25 to 30 years.

The solar energy industry is booming, and jobs are increasing dramatically. Investing in solar panels helps the economy. In 2015, there were 209,000 jobs in solar. In 2018, there were 242,000! In fact, employment has increased 70% since 2013. In 2018, the solar industry contributed $17 billion to the overall economy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

The cons of solar energy

Investing in solar sometimes requires a large upfront cost. Let’s bring that $18,900 figure in one more time. That’s a lot of money for most people. Yes, the federal tax credit helps, but you’re still throwing down a lot of dough for the pizza. With the tax credit you’re paying $12,230, which is still a big number.

Luckily, there are solar loan and financing options available. Some states even have strong leasing and Power-Purchase Agreement (PPA) programs, but as with any leasing program, know the requirements and risks before diving in.

Depending on where you live, there might be multiple political barriers designed to discourage the use of solar. The easiest way for you to see what’s going on in your state is to look at our annual state rankings. Simply click on your state, and you’ll be presented with a comprehensive snapshot of why homeowners in your area are either basking in the sun, or being left in the dark.

Some states explicitly repeal their renewable portfolio standards (RPS) to protect power companies, or don’t have standards at all…looking at you Florida, the Sunshine State(?). RPS are policy goals set in place to achieve a certain percentage of energy produced by renewables by a certain time.

Other states, like Kansas, have terrible net metering laws, or even extra charges, which send a direct message that solar power isn’t welcome.

Fortunately, this damaging approach is quickly becoming antiquated, and more homeowners are waking up to it. Solar is the future, folks.

Your roof, and its orientation, may not be suitable for solar panels. Older, historical homes with slate or cedar tiles can pose a headache for installers. Same for hip roofs, and especially for the directional orientation of your house. South-facing roofs are ideal, with west-facing a good backup. We wrote this handy post that tells you all about it.

But that doesn’t mean you have to miss the solar train. Ground-mounted systems are definitely an option, and community solar is a lot like a community garden, except they have less kale and more solar panels.

Intermittency. Low-cost storage of energy is in its infancy, so complications can arise when the sun isn’t shining. You may have to tap into the electrical grid in the winter, for example. Or conversely, generate too much power in the summer which needs to be fed back into the power grid. According to Wood Mackenzie’s US Energy Storage Monitor, energy storage deployment will double for the residential sector by 2024:

Bar graph showing future solar energy storage deployments 2018-2024

Residential solar energy storage will reach nearly 1,000 MW by 2024.

Energy storage is a pretty complicated arena, with tons of information and bureaucracy, so here are two main takeaways:

Storage of renewable energy is improving. You could argue it’s the next massive business opportunity in the energy industry. As solar adoption increases, storage of said solar energy improves as communities and companies get more creative and efficient with policy and manufacturing. According to the SEIA, the cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen dramatically, and storage batteries are becoming more accessible to more homeowners.
Several states have strong net metering laws, which feed your energy back into the grid then give you a credit for the unused energy (it can be distributed to other homes in your area). You can also use that excess energy from the grid when you need it.

Manufacturing can be a little wasteful; proper recycling and re-use of solar panels aren’t refined and efficient (yet). Nothing in this world comes without cost, and solar panels are no different. That being said, we call this “clean energy” because they’re considerably cleaner than fossil fuels.

Some environmental impacts occur when solar panels:

  • Are manufactured: Silicon (used in panels) is extracted and purified to create polysilicon, which produces the byproduct silicon tetrachloride. While this can be recycled to create more polysilicon, some is dumped into water, which creates toxic hydrochloric acid.
  • Are shipped: Vehicles are needed to get the panels to their destination.
  • Reach their end-of-life (typically 25-30 years): Improved solar panel recycling programs, especially in China and the US, is the primary goal in future solar projections according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Despite these impacts, the solar industry is traveling at lightspeed in improving the environmental costs. Solar panel manufacturing is still way cleaner than fossil fuels. And fossil fuels continue to produce emissions while in use. The energy invested in manufacturing is made up quickly as the panels generate electricity, and once they’re installed they produce zero pollution for three decades.

On recycling and reuse

In the coming decades, the challenge of recycling and reusing solar panels will be of paramount importance for solar growth in the US. Fortunately, it’s also a top priority for the solar industry, which means creative solutions are starting to take shape.

First-generation solar panels are reaching their end-of-life cycle, and more and more systems will need recycling as more people buy equipment. It’s important here to acknowledge that recycling and reusing solar panels is complicated. They’re made of materials that need to be separated, like silicon, copper, aluminum, and cadmium. Without the proper infrastructure and policies, those metals sitting around in landfills can cause environmental and health hazards.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a study stating that by 2050, there will be 60 to 78 million tons of photovoltaic (PV) waste, with a spike beginning in the 2030s (due to panel lifetime).

But things are improving. The world is finally getting serious about PV recycling. There are countless business opportunities in PV recycling and reuse. Europe is ahead of the USA with programs like PV Cycle, which has a 96% recovery rate for PV panels. And here in the US, SEIA is also pursuing similar programs designed to recycle PV panels effectively.

Flow chart depicting recycling process of solar panels

A lot of work goes into recycling solar panels effectively!

The balance of solar energy pros and cons: It’s absolutely worth it

The good news about the bad news on solar is that the cons manifest at the very beginning of the investment, and dissipate over time.

The upfront costs, whether your roof is suitable or not, the manufacturing…all those things hit all at once and turn into positives in the long run. Plus, improved energy storage and more efficient recycling programs on a larger scale will only get better as you save more and more money by going solar at home.

We liken this to getting into running. Everyone hates running at the beginning. The sweat, the pain, the neon fanny packs. But over time, you get faster. You get healthier. You sweat less. You see positive results – and then you’re in for life.

Going solar is a win-win long game, for you and the world around you. Why not be part of the revolution?

Last modified: September 3, 2019

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Billy
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Billy

Thank you for outlining the pros and cons! Very helpful for those trying to get into solar.

Taylor Anderson
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Taylor Anderson

It’s really cool that solar power can help save money on bills. I’ve been thinking of getting solar power, but I haven’t been sure. I really appreciate you sharing the pros and cons of solar power, so thank you.

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