Over the years, the energy consumption of people all over the world has been increasing. It is predicted that by 2040, the figures will rise by more than 50% as compared to the levels recorded in 2010 (Aman et al., 2015, p. 1191). Moreover, many of the sources of energy that humans use are environmentally damaging, which is evidenced to have resulted in climate changes (Creutzig et al., 2017; McCright, 2016). Consequently, the search for and transition to advanced energy technologies that would be sustainable and less environmentally damaging is in progress.
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One of the options that have been proposed as a substitution for the currently prevalent sources of energy (mostly fossil fuels) is solar power. The present paper will offer a profile of photovoltaic (PV) solar power as an energy source, focusing on its definition, advantages, disadvantages, and current and future use. Based on the presented data, it can be concluded that PV solar power is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, but some of its drawbacks, as well as various barriers, could limit its use in the future.
Put simply, solar power refers to the application of “thermal radiation emitted by the sun” to various energy needs of humans (Aman et al., 2015, p. 1191). The present paper focuses on the production of energy with the help of PV solar power; it does not consider other uses to offer more extensive coverage of this approach. The reason for choosing PV is that it is the most widely employed method of solar energy production (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016). Given that its use has also been increasing (International Energy Agency, 2019), the choice of the topic is justified.
The method of PV employs a wide variety of devices that can differ in complexity and materials. Their common feature is their function of converting thermal solar radiation into electricity (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016; Mahela & Shaik, 2017). According to Aman et al. (2015), it is most common to use silicon PV cells. However, as the field develops, alternatives with improved properties appear and can become popularized in the future due to their increased efficiency or reduced costs (Espinosa, Laurent, Benatto, Hösel, & Krebs, 2016; Mahela & Shaik, 2017). Different methods of PV cell manufacturing also exist with their benefits and drawbacks. For example, a monocrystalline cell is quite efficient but more expensive than the polycrystalline version, which is less good at converting solar power (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016). In other words, PV research has been developing new methods of energy production, and its variety of solutions can be adjusted to the needs of a particular consumer.
The advantages of solar energy are very numerous. The primary advantage is that it is renewable; it does not require extracting finite resources, which is why it can be used as a long-term solution (Sampaio & González, 2017). Secondly, solar power lacks many of the effects of fossil fuels. In particular, it results in relatively low carbon emissions, and it does not presuppose water consumption while operating, which is a common requirement for conventional plans and even many renewable energy devices (Aman et al., 2015; Li, Bian, Liu, Zhang, & Yang, 2015). These outcomes are very important since carbon emissions are connected to climate change; also, water shortages are a common issue all over the world.
PV cells have relatively low land requirements, and they do not result in significant land transformations. Even the acquisition of PV materials does not necessitate substantial alteration of the landscape since the devices predominantly use silicon (Aman et al., 2015; Li et al., 2015). In addition, PV cells do not cause noise pollution, and silicon, as well as some other elements from PV cells, can be reused (Aman et al., 2015). In a word, PV devices are fairly sustainable (Sampaio & González, 2017; Wiser et al., 2016), especially when compared to fossil fuels.
Furthermore, solar power is not the most expensive option, and PV prices have been dropping. Currently, PV options are produced with rather cheap materials (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016). Due to their popularization and advancements in related research, PV cells are expected to become even more inexpensive, especially in developed countries (Aman et al., 2015). Furthermore, the cheaper versions of PV cells are becoming more efficient (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016). When compared to fossil fuels and certain renewable energy sources, PV’s payback ratio is rather good (Aman et al., 2015; Li et al., 2015). Finally, PV devices are also rather fast to construct (Li et al., 2015). Overall, PV cells have noticeable benefits when compared to other methods of energy production; however, they also have significant drawbacks.
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Despite being considered environmentally friendly as a form of energy production, PV cells also require manufacturing which can be damaging to the environment. In particular, PV cell production results in the disposal of wastewater, as well as other hazardous materials (Aman et al., 2015). In addition, their manufacturing, while cheaper now, still requires significant amounts of energy and funds (Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016; Li et al., 2015). In other words, certain aspects of PV cell production necessitate refinement; most of these issues can be resolved.
Despite not needing a lot of space, PV cells do use some land, and more is required for greater-scale farms that would produce a lot of energy for particular needs (Aman et al., 2015). As a result, the application of PV cells to high-density regions may be complicated and very costly depending on land prices. Furthermore, the maintenance of installed cells may require the usage of particular chemicals, some of which can result in contamination (Aman et al., 2015). Naturally, there are engineering solutions to this problem, but it still represents a chemical hazard. Furthermore, while PV cell silicon can be reused, the process for achieving this outcome has not been established yet (Aman et al., 2015). Used PV cells may also constitute hazardous waste, for example, because of the silver that they contain (Aman et al., 2015; Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016). In summary, the application and decommissioning of PV cells are associated with significant challenges as well.
Finally, a note on the efficiency of PV cells should be made. Low-value PV devices are among the technologies with the fastest energy payback; however, it is not true for high-value PV cells, which are rather slow to pay back for the energy that has been used to produce them (Aman et al., 2015). In other words, PV devices use a lot of energy, especially when compared to hydropower ones, which increases the likelihood of PV power affecting the environment negatively. In addition, PV cells, as well as some other renewable energy sources, are affected by weather conditions (Li et al., 2015), which may reduce their efficiency.
The general conclusion that can be made from studying comparative reviews of renewable energy sources is that more or less every approach has its benefits and drawbacks, as well as exclusionary requirements. From this perspective, PV solar energy is not an exception (Li et al., 2015). Thus, PV is a viable choice that is better than some alternatives, but it still requires some adjustment before it can be deemed completely environmentally safe, and its efficiency can be improved.
Current and Future Use
Over the years, the application of solar energy has been growing. Still, it is not the most popular solution to the energy problem (Kannan & Vakeesan, 2016; Li et al., 2015). The International Energy Agency (2019) reports that solar energy use has been increasing, and at its current rates, it may achieve the forecasts and targets set by the Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (see Figure 1). It appears that solar energy is growing in use at unprecedented rates that exceed those of other approaches to energy production (Creutzig et al., 2017). Therefore, it can be reasonably anticipated that PV will be used in the future; after all, it has notable benefits, and its current drawbacks are being reduced through research and development efforts (Aman et al., 2015). However, solar energy is used to a lesser extent than many other renewable energy sources, especially geothermal and wind power, and bioenergy (see Figure 2).
It is noteworthy that the potential of solar energy was calculated to exceed the energy needs of the population of the Earth (Aman et al., 2015, p. 1191). Theoretically, the full transition to solar power could potentially provide the planet with the energy that humans require. Given that the energy consumption has been increasing, this finding might change, however, and multiple reasons can constrain the adoption of PV in the future, which are detailed below.
Transition to another approach of energy production is often associated with challenges, which is why it can be considered a specific barrier. The transition requires significant initial costs and a skilled workforce; it is also associated with noticeable changes in infrastructure and processes (Creutzig et al., 2017; Kabir, Kumar, Kumar, Adelodun, & Kim, 2018). Change may also meet the resistance associated with wanting to preserve the status quo (McCright, 2016). These challenges need to be taken into account when projecting the future use of solar PV energy.
The Drawbacks of the Technology as a Barrier
The limitations of the technology that are detailed above are fairly significant. As suggested by Li et al. (2015), such disadvantages, as well as the relative advantages of some other approaches to renewable energy production, may justify using solar PV cells to a lesser extent. However, as pointed out by Aman et al. (2015), Espinosa et al. (2016), and Lewis (2016), PV improvements are a topic that is extensively studied; among other things, more efficient and less costly PV cells, as well as more environmentally friendly disposal processes, are being investigated. Thus, the currently observed trends may hold, and PV energy may indeed become more prevalent over time, substituting fossil fuels.
Culture, Mindset, and Climate Change Skepticism
An important factor that has been hindering the transition toward alternative energy technologies is the attitude toward various alternative sources of energy. A particularly negative attitude stems from climate change skepticism (Creutzig et al., 2017; McCright, 2016; McCright, Charters, Dentzman, & Dietz, 2016); this factor can be considered a sociocultural one. Climate change skepticism can be encountered in different countries, including the United States and various countries of Europe (McCright, 2016; McCright, Dunlap, & Marquart-Pyatt, 2016). McCright (2016) finds that the issue is predominantly connected to defending the status quo. The resistance to change may become a problem that would prevent PV cells from substituting the more environmentally damaging but also more conventional energy production methods.
It should be mentioned that climate change is very well-evidenced (Creutzig et al., 2017; McCright, 2016). From this perspective, it would appear that the primary reason for climate change skepticism is the lack of knowledge on the topic, which is a preventable issue. In addition, as pointed out by Sütterlin and Siegrist (2017), solar power may have particular popularity, which can be attributed to its connection to the sun that is a positive symbol in many cultures. However, the authors proceed to note that the general public rarely considers the beneficial and negative features of solar power. In other words, to achieve reasonable, meaningful support of solar power, it is necessary to educate the general public accordingly. It should be pointed out, however, that climate change skeptics are less likely to trust scientists and environmentalists (McCright, 2016). In summary, mindset and sociocultural phenomena are not unlikely to have an impact on the way solar power will be used, and at least some of them are going to serve as barriers.
PV solar energy is a particular approach to energy production that employs the thermal radiation of the sun. It has several advantages, most of which are determined through its differences from fossil fuels: PV cells provide renewable energy, do not use limited resources, and do not emit carbon. Their impact on the environment is noticeably less problematic. Furthermore, PV has some benefits when compared to other renewables; for example, PV devices have no water consumption after their installation.
However, PV cells are not environmentally friendly. There are multiple environmental hazards associated with their production, maintenance, and disposal. Depending on the quality of the product, PV devices can be relatively expensive, and they do not have the shortest payback time, although it is also not very prolonged. In general, PV solar energy is an energy option that can substitute the currently used environmentally damaging practices, but its spread can be limited by its drawbacks, challenges of transition, and the attitudes of the general public.
Current trends demonstrate that solar PV power will be used as an alternative to fossil fuels, and this solution is appropriate since PV cells are superior to conventional energy sources. PV devices also have several drawbacks which make them less feasible, efficient, or applicable than some of the other renewable energy sources, but the research on the topic is ongoing. Future PV cells will be more efficient; their environmental impact is going to be reduced due to improved recycling approaches and new maintenance methods. The PV method, just like every energy source, has advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the needs of specific regions and consumers, it may or may not be the best choice.
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