Future Tech

Is Solar Energy Sustainable? 4 Problems to Solve Before the Solar Revolution

Joel Lee 12-06-2015

What would happen if the world ran out of fossil fuel? No more cars, no more electricity, no more air conditioning. As soon as the last batteries were drained, we’d be right back in the Middle Ages. We can’t let that happen.


Energy is expensive, and as we continue to deplete the Earth of its oil, the price of energy is only going to increase No, Low Gas Prices Are Not the End of the Electric Car Do falling gas prices spell the end for electric cars like the Tesla Model S? Not so fast. Gas prices aren't the whole story. Read More — that is, unless we can find another way to generate electricity. When fuel is so crucial that gas-money-saving apps 8 Unique Apps to Help You Save Gas Money Saving money on gas is not only good for yourself, but also for the planet. These apps help you efficiently manage your vehicle’s mileage and fuel costs while building good driving habits. Read More become commonplace, that’s when you know the problem is real.

Seriously, we could run out of fossil fuels by 2060.

Solar energy is our best hope The Energy of The Future, Today: How Do Solar Panels & Heliostats Work? Renewable resources. It’s a problem that we face every day whether we realize it or not. With every pump of a gas handle, with every press of a car’s accelerator, with every plug of our... Read More , but the development of said technology over the past few decades has been lackluster. How long before solar energy lives up to its promises? What’s taking so long? Will the energy revolution arrive in time?

The World Needs Solar Energy…

To be fair, solar energy isn’t the only alternative to fossil fuels. There are plenty of other avenues being explored by brilliant minds around the world, and while they all show varying amounts of potential, they all have serious drawbacks.

For example, wind power. Wind is everywhere and full of energy potential. It’s green, has negligible pollution output, and is relatively efficient when it comes to space requirements.



Unfortunately, wind is unpredictable and often comes in intermittent surges, which isn’t very useful unless we can develop long-term storage of the produced energy. Not to mention the fact that wind turbines can be disturbingly loud, and dangerous to maintain.

In addition, large wind farms can have an immediate impact on local weather (by influencing air circulation) and local wildlife (turbines killing birds and bats). This may be mitigated by the development of bladeless wind turbines, but it’s still too early to tell.

Hydroelectric power is another fuel source that has proven effective but problematic. Hydropower dams are destructive to aquatic ecosystems, creating stagnant bodies of water, disrupting migration habits, and outright killing many kinds of fish.



Other forms of alternative energy, including biofuels and hydrogen, have difficulties overcoming the most basic of problems: it takes more energy to produce them than the energy offered when consumed.

Another decent option is nuclear power, which is much more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels on a per-unit basis. However, waste disposal remains an issue, and there’s still the issue of finite fuel. Nuclear power could buy us time, but it’s not a permanent solution to the problem.

Which, for now, only leaves us with solar energy as the only plausible long-term solution.


…But the Obstacles Are Many

We’ve briefly covered why solar energy hasn’t taken off What Is Solar Energy And Why Hasn't It Taken Off? What's the big deal with solar energy? If it's really as important and necessary as so many claim it to be, why hasn't it taken over the energy industry yet? Read More before, but let’s explore it in a bit more detail. If the sun is our supposed savior from fossil fuel depletion, what the heck is keeping the solar revolution at bay?

Turns out, we’ve got a few obstacles to jump over.


First of all, like wind energy, solar energy is intermittent. It’s a well-known fact that solar cells only generate energy while the sun is shining on them. This simple problem renders solar cells completely ineffective for large parts of the world.


Take a city like Seattle or London. These are areas that see more rainfall than sunshine throughout the year. In order to power these cities with solar energy alone, each day’s worth of sunshine would have to generate at least two days’ worth of electricity. Solar technology is nowhere near that capability right now.

What about the Amazon rainforest? That’s 2.1 million square miles of land that’s incapable of harnessing the sun’s rays for electricity. What about countries around the Arctic Circle? These places might see sunshine for six straight months, then darkness for the following six months. They’d only have electricity for half the year. Pooling power between different area represents a problem too, because the energy loss over long power lines becomes prohibitive. We could fix this with room-temperature superconductors, but that technology is a long ways off.


Which brings us to the next big problem: solar energy storage. If solar production is only available at certain times of day in certain regions of the world, the obvious answer is to bottle up that energy and save it for later. Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done.

The problem is that cheap battery packs have longevity or reliability issues while quality battery packs are prohibitively expensive to produce. In 2013, large-scale lithium-ion batteries hovered around the $1,000/kWh price point.

Fortunately for us all, 2015 ushered in a new era when Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled next-generation battery packs Did Elon Musk Just Save Us From Fossil Fuels? Read More for both small-scale consumer use and large-scale company use. Prices are set to begin around $350/kWh and will only get cheaper from here on out.


But solar energy storage only matters if we can produce more electricity than we actually need so that we can store away the excess, which is why we also need to talk about solar cell efficiency.

The average American household requires around 24kWh per day (or 1kW per hour). However, this figure isn’t evenly distributed: electricity usage is relatively constant through the day, spikes in the evening after people come home from work, then drops to nearly nothing after everyone has gone to sleep. This presents a problem.

In order for there to be electricity during the night, solar energy must be captured and stored during the day while the sun is still out. But if people are using electricity during the day, then solar cells need to capture as much sun as possible: enough to fulfill daytime electricity demands and enough to fill up batteries for the night.

Or in other words, if we assume that we get six hours of “good sun” per day — and that’s being generous — then solar capacity must be enough to capture 24 hours worth of energy during that six hour period. After all, solar cell ratings are based on ideal conditions: a clear, noon-day sun at the Earth’s equator.


So, let’s talk efficiency. On average, a consumer-rated solar panel can generate about 10 watts per hour per sq. ft. Therefore, to generate 1kWh, you would need 100 sq. ft. of solar panels. But this assumes that the sun is shining all day every day, and we know that’s not true.

If we assume six hours of “good sun”, then we would need four times as much solar paneling, which brings us up to 400 sq. ft. of solar paneling to fulfill the electricity demands of an average American household. And the sum of all this paneling would need to be rated at 4kW.

At an average of $5 per watt, a 4kW system would cost about $20,000. Thanks to Tesla, we can now purchase three 10kWh batteries at $3,500 each for a net total of $10,500. So for about $30,500 you could have an operational system that fulfills your daily electricity needs and up to 30 hours of battery (assuming you have 400 sq. ft. of panel-compatible land).

Of course all of that assumes that you have 400 sq. ft. of panel-compatible land, which just isn’t true for most people (especially in urban areas). For this to be a real, practical solution, we’d need to massively improve the efficiency of solar cells, or cover essentially all buildings with them, using something like spray-on solar cell Efficient. Cheap. Awesome. Here's Why New Spray-On Solar Cells Matter The cost of solar energy is set to drop precipitously after a team of scientists working at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom announced development of solar cells using a spray-on process. Read More technology.


Lastly, we have big issues regarding solar energy infrastructure throughout the world. The essence of this issue comes down to this: think of everything that currently runs on fossil fuels (e.g. cars, power plants, etc.), then think of how much work would be required to convert all of that to being solar-compatible.

Many power plants would need to be shut down, even demolished, in order to be rebuilt as solar farms. Gas-, diesel-, and hybrid-powered automobiles would need to be abandoned in favor of full-electric vehicles like the Tesla How Electric Cars Will Overcome Charging Limits Electric cars are great -- except for their range. Can electric cars overcome range technologies? Read More . And then there are peripheral costs, like converting gas stations into charging stations.

This is all very expensive.

But if we look at the future of larger scale solar infrastructure, MIT just released a study that found it possible to achieve terawatt-scale deployment of solar power by 2050. That’s enough to power 41.7 billion households at the average American electricity consumption rate.

Maybe widespread solar adoption before we run out of fossil fuels might be possible after all.

Good News: The Future Looks Bright

If you’ve gotten this far and are still skeptical about the future of solar technology, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s been touted as a game-changer for decades and all of these recent developments may seem like more smoke being blown around.

Well, the truth is that alternative energy can work.

Costa Rica recently went more than 75 days straight using nothing but renewable energy. Granted, most of it was done through hydroelectric plants during a heavy rainfall season, but it provides a glimmer of hope for those of us who want to break our dependence on oil.

On top of that, France recently signed into law a decree that requires all new commercial buildings to cover their rooftops with solar panels or plants. It’s a small but important step that shows that the world is starting to accept that solar energy is not just necessary for the future, it’s plausible as a real solution.

If we allow it, solar energy has the potential to be one of several technologies that will change the world forever Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day. Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years. Read More . And thanks to recent developments and social shifts, that change might arrive sooner than we think it will.

Do you have reservations about solar power? How long do you think before the world abandons fossil fuels for good? Will that day ever come? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Image Credits: Wind Energy Farm Via Shutterstock, Corn Biofuel Via Shutterstock, Solar Horizon Via Shutterstock, Solar Batteries Via Shutterstock, Solar Lightbulb Via Shutterstock, Solar Home Rooftops Via Shutterstock, Solar Bus Stop Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Energy Conservation, Green Technology, Solar Energy.

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  1. dragonmouth
    September 18, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Switching solar power generation sounds simple and clean. The actual generation process may not affect the environment. However, one aspect of solar power I have never seen mentioned is the environmental impact of manufacturing the solar panels. . The raw materials have to be mined, transported to processing plants, processed using caustic and toxic chemicals, transported to the manufacturing plants where the panels are assembled. Each and every step uses energy and waste products. Some steps require quite a lot of energy and generate large amounts of toxic waste. Manufacturing solar energy devices still requires petroleum products. Maybe not as much as power generation but still large amounts.

    Even though solar power generation may not generate pollution, it does have an environmental impact. At today's efficiency levels, solar farms require square miles of panels to supply even a small city with sufficient power. In my area, a suburb of New York City, there is a nuclear power plant that is capable of generating about 2500 megawatts of electricity. The state governor, in his infinite wisdom, has forced this plant to be closed by 2021 to be replaced with "alternate sources". How many square miles of solar panels and/or how many wind turbines will it take to replace the generating capacity of this one nuclear plant?

  2. Matt Meiresonne
    February 22, 2017 at 2:53 am

    Hey Joel,

    Totally. Storage is one aspect of solar that really needs to improve in order for scalability to take place.

    Keep up the good work man!

  3. Anonymous
    June 1, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    The emporer’s new solar panels

    “What kind of fool could believe in forever?”
    ~ Danny Wilson, “Broken China” from the album Meet Danny Wilson (1987)

    They’re all made by companies over the sea
    Whose names you won’t recognize since
    A decade ago these firms had yet to be
    And maybe won’t be, ten years hence.

    They tell you the warranty’s twenty-five years,
    What’s more there are no moving parts.
    The buyer believes that the top glass adheres
    To the truth of the marketing arts.

    The cheap vinyl backing expands with the heat,
    Contracts in the cool of the shade,
    And truly won’t move if the sun doesn’t beat
    Which isn’t when power is made,

    Then once there have been enough days in the sun
    You’ll observe upon examination
    The seal of the glass to the vinyl’s undone
    By a process called delamination.

    Once water gets inside, a process transpires
    To render the panel infirm,
    Though even at best to pay off it requires
    A decade-or-more working term.

    The big no-name brands say they have a solution:
    A backing of glass and not vinyl.
    Check out the new line – it’s a whole revolution!
    Just order now; all sales are final.

    Now dual-pane glass isn’t new under the sun
    Where it fogs till our views are obstructed.
    Shall solar home owners want in on the fun
    Before years of field tests are conducted?

    No worries, to build these is such an admission
    Your order will hit the sales channels
    And leave you no juice as you can’t requisition
    The emporer’s new solar panels.

    If ever you can, though, then how would you guess
    It’s a guinea pig’s role you’re adopting?
    What’s new but seems long in the tooth won’t cause stress
    In the brave new world for which you’re opting.

    Who benefits from keeping folks in the dark
    And these quality problems unsolved?
    The big power industry leaves no earmark
    That its empire is at all involved.
    ~ Thanks Always Returns
    [Broken Link Removed]

  4. Brian
    February 5, 2016 at 7:09 am

    No batteries needed. Solar is predictable. Most of our energy use is already when the sun shines. add time of day and charging ecars and its probably 60% of our energy demands can be satisfied with solar with Zero storage.

    Wind can make up about 50% of the remaining energy needs, leaving only 20% to be satisfied with hydro and fuels from wastes.

    no batteries, except the ecars (eletric cars)

    We need to stop all new nuclear and fossils development. All new energy should be renewable.

    Solar pv, offshore wind, electric vehicles, efficiency, and hydro and waste to fuels for backup, long range and chemicals. Cheaper before gov breaks(search lazard energy version 8), infinitely  cheaper than wars for oil and gas, pollution and climate change.

  5. Jayant Giri
    January 31, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Instead of doing research on increasing the killing capacity of weapons, governments should spend on making solar energy more economical and widely applicable. More research grants should be given to young minds to tackle the negatives that are coming in the way of adopting solar energy for daily use.'

  6. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    I don't know why my comment was ignored, Maybe I shouldn't post?

  7. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    righalg,actually EXCEPT smartphones most of home appliances are much smaller energy hogs than even 1 decade ago - compare LCD/LED to plasma, LED light to classic 'edison'/luminescent or modern PC to mid-2000s one. It's just that more people are getting them and that average house is getting larger (thus more energy is spent on AC/heating). So - replacemnt of one's restroom light from old lightbulb to LED negates change of that old Nokia to modern Nexus. Not to mention that iPad eats less than notebook.

    As for alternative energy - green lobby basically stomped on nuclear energy in the West ( just look up quantity of new stations in USA and compare that to RF or, god forbid ,PRC), while abundant low-quality brown coals are mostly left unused too (because they're _really_ dirty), and this will be enough for economics to keep running but will turn things like private cars and passenger jet flights to insane luxury. Of course if gov'ts will be smart enough to allocate (and subsidize) remaining liquid fuels for agricultural uses, otherwise there'll be much bleaker picture.

  8. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I forgot, what are solar panels made out of again? Does the sun create all those raw materials needed not only in the panels themselves, but also in the factories that make the panels?

    • Anonymous
      June 12, 2015 at 7:29 pm

      why Michael, as an engineer formerly involved in the solar market, I have to say that this question is far more important then any of the points the author distributes from Solar City and other corporate sponsors.

      The short answer: all components involved in making both cells and batteries heavily rely on fosse, fuels, both for material construction and for energy to produce. Not only can solar not generate energy as efficiently as fossil fuel combustion (nor likely will be able to, ever, in this universe), but their construction and handling is incredibly toxic.

      Organic chemistry will not be mocked.

      The safest and only alternative to fossil fuels that exists today is nuclear, which when deployed using modern technology, is both cleaner snd safer then even currently deployed fossil fuels (in fact, there is more radiation thrown from coal burning plants today then ever thrown from nuclear plants). This statement is based on hard science, devoid of green religion as much as possible.

      People don't understand that fuel is the least important usage of fossil fuels - organic chemistry is inheritly what life is dependent on. A simple example - nitrogen for crops is produced using a process arising out of fossil fuels that cannot be synthesized by any other means. Currently, the earth is at approximately 300% of its capacity to generate nitrogen in an organic format for crops, meaning that without this usage of fossil fuels, a full two thirds of the world's population will die from starvation within a month.

      Of course, this truth is rather inconvenient. Go organic with crops, and starve the world. Go solar, and do the same.

  9. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    The world running out of fossil fuels by 2060 is complete unfounded bunk. Natural gas reserves that are known an untapped are massive. There is even more coal untapped so the preface the end is near is exaggerated to say the least. Second solar is great for niche market and supplemental but as the base load it doesn't cut it. Elon Musk's batterys are good concept but you can't build batteries like that without using non renewable energy (unless you are in Icleand and use geothermal or Hydro which is limited by topography). Physics can not be ignored. When you examine the amount of energy that is required to manufacture a solar panel versus what the solar panel produces you will see that a massive step change must occur before you can even make a dent in it. The same goes for the massive batteries. You can drill an oil or gas well and get several orders of magnitude greater energy back than what it requires to drill the well. The same is not true for manufacturing batteries and solar panels. Most of the energy for manufacturing the components for windmills and solar panels comes from fossil fuels (or nuclear). Put another way how many solar panels would it take to generate enough power to manufacture a solar panel (hint its way more than 1).

  10. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    At the current efficiency levels large scale solar farms are large enough to impact the environment. A solar farm that can provide the electricity needs of even a small city needs to be square miles in area. A couple orders of magnitude increase in efficiency is required before large scale solar electricity generation becomes viable. (Large scale = significant % of world's needs) However, that will not happen in the foreseeable future.

    A way around the large area requirement for solar farms could be "distributed collecting". Every building would be roofed with solar panels instead of shingles as is already done by some companies. The problem with this approach is that it would require a government mandate which would bring out in protest all the anti-government individuals and groups.

    • Joel Lee
      July 10, 2015 at 12:18 am

      There are alternatives to government mandates. I'm sure brighter minds than mine can come up with some creative incentives that would encourage the general populace to voluntarily install rooftop panels. Would that be enough, you think?

    • GL
      September 18, 2018 at 7:24 am

      Thanks for all your comments. People don't understand magnitude of scale or that creating all this "green" energy makes a larger polution problem.

  11. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    I read about this guy years ago, he's been living off the grid for almost 10 years. http://hydrogenhouseproject.org/

    • Joel Lee
      July 10, 2015 at 12:17 am

      Wow, that's pretty cool. Seems like a lot of initial knowledge and effort is necessary to get to that point though, and I'm not sure the average person is equipped well enough to do the same. What do you think?

  12. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I think the world will run out of fossil fuels and we will not have enough time to find affordable, alternative sources of energy. I know this sounds pessimistic, but considering our energy usage has increased rapidly over the last few years thanks to the advancement in electronics. A classic example of this is the smartphones that need to be recharged daily, but old-school cellphones could last up to 2 weeks on a single charge.

    • Joel Lee
      July 10, 2015 at 12:15 am

      Do you think there's any hope in society adopting greener behavior? It looks pretty bleak right now, but I guess the question is whether it's too late for us to change.