When considering the idea of solar as an energy source, a lot of the questions that people tend to ask are the obvious ones, such as, “How much does solar cost?” and its corollary, “How much will I save?,” as well as, “What kind of financial incentives are there to going solar?,” but when it comes to the practical, nuts-and-bolts questions about solar, people also commonly ask, “How do they work” and “What are the most efficient panels?” and “How long do solar panels last?“
But one of the questions that many people, either without an energy background in general or without knowledge of solar in particular, have about solar is also one that most might be embarrassed to admit they don’t know, perhaps because it sounds so basic and commonsense that it seems silly to ask, “Is solar energy renewable?” After all, isn’t that the point of solar?
The point of going solar is different for different people, and in some cases, it’s strictly a matter of dollars and sense, and the purchase of a home solar array is an investment that continues to pay out dividends, year after year after year, for decades, so for those people, it’s an economic decision, rather than an environmental one. For other solar homeowners, while the financial savings are nice as well, it’s also about taking responsibility for our own energy consumption, and choosing to contribute clean, emissions-free energy to the grid is one way to do that.
Coming back to the question of whether or not solar energy is renewable, it helps to understand that there is no ‘free lunch’ when it comes to energy (or pretty much anything material). Manufacturing solar panels, inverters, and the accompanying hardware that goes into a solar array has a certain environmental cost, in the sense that there is a ‘footprint’ for each item, and an associated emissions profile for the embodied energy in each part, so it’s not as if solar energy is a total free-ride, environmentally speaking.
From a technical perspective, a measure called ‘energy return on energy investment‘ or EROEI, can be used to compare the “eco-friendliness” of different energy sources, and while explaining that concept fully is outside the scope of this article, solar tends to come in somewhere between 3.75:1 and 10:1, so in short, solar is indeed “worth it.” However, this article at Forbes declares that the EROEI “break-even number for fueling our modern society” is around 7, so for energy and economic wonks, there is still some disagreement about that.
Once the panel is manufactured, and the inverter is built and the wiring is made, and all of the components are put together on a rooftop or other location, then assuming nothing catastrophic happens to the solar installation, the panels will generate electricity for decades (at a minimum) without requiring any further input, energy or otherwise, to do so. Granted, a certain small amount of periodic maintenance many be necessary, such as cleaning off the surface of the solar panels themselves, but other than that, solar is indeed renewable energy, as long as the sun keeps shining everyday. And if the sun doesn’t come up one morning, chances are we’ll have a lot more to worry about than whether or not our solar array is producing electricity efficiently…
Image: Thomas Williams