You’ve likely heard a lot about solar energy lately, especially if you’re interested in environmental, energy, technology or political news. You’ve probably seen solar panels as you go about your daily lives. Maybe you even get some of your energy from the sun.
Solar energy use has been increasing for residential customers, businesses, and utilities. The U.S. solar energy industry had its biggest year ever in 2016 and nearly doubled the capacity installed in 2015. It’s projected that, over the next five years, solar photovoltaic capacity will nearly triple.
With all the attention being given to solar energy, there are a few common misconceptions about it. Here are some of the most common myths about solar energy, and the truths behind them.
1: Solar Systems Can’t Be Used at Night
It’s true that solar panels won’t generate energy at night because they need sunlight to do it. You won’t be totally at a loss for electricity when the sun goes down, though. There are a couple of ways solar can still provide you with power at night.
A variety of methods can be used to store unutilized solar energy made during that day, so it can be used at night when new power isn’t being generated. These methods include lithium-ion batteries, compressed air, flywheels and a variety of other technologies. Researchers are currently working to improve energy storage as well.
The other way a solar system can provide you with energy at night is a less direct method. Solar energy producers can often sell excess power back to the grid. The energy they sell is then used to offset the cost of the energy they use at night.
2: Solar Systems Don’t Work if It’s Cloudy
Although solar systems are less effective if the sun is obstructed, they still can convert some power. On a typical cloudy day, a solar system will often produce around 10 to 25 percent of its usual capacity.
Tall trees or buildings can also cause problems by blocking sunlight. You should consult with a professional before installing a solar system if you’re worried about obstruction. They’ll be able to help you position your panels so they get the optimal amount of sunlight and may suggest trimming trees that might get in the way.
3: Solar Systems Don’t Work in Cold Climates
Solar systems use sunlight to create power, not heat, so hotter climates are not necessarily better for solar energy generation. In fact, high temperatures can actually cause solar panels to perform less efficiently. Conductivity improves in colder weather, allowing electricity to flow more easily.
Although some areas may be better than others for solar energy, it’s the places that get more sun — not more heat — that are ideal for installing solar panels.
4: Solar Systems Are Too Expensive
As technology advances, solar systems are becoming cheaper to produce. As more solar companies enter the market, competition is driving costs down as well. In 2016, year-over-year pricing for residential solar system fell by 17 percent. For utility-scale solar, the price dropped by 20 percent year over year.
Both government agencies and utilities run programs that can help lower the cost of solar installations. Check with your utility or local government to see what incentive programs, grants or other financial assistance opportunities are available in your area.
Although installing a solar system still requires a major upfront investment, the price is falling and there is lots of financing help available. Plus, your solar system may pay for itself over time.
The future of solar
One thing’s for sure: Solar is definitely on the rise. A growing number of residents, businesses, communities and utilities are taking advantage of the benefits solar energy can provide.
Of course, it’s not a perfect technology, and it won’t be able to provide 100 percent of our energy needs any time in the near future. It’s definitely nothing to be scoffed at, though. If used well, solar can be a major part of the path toward a secure and clean energy future.
It’s important that solar is well understood by policymakers, utilities and energy customers. Things will certainly change as technology continues to advance, but for now, we should aim to learn as much as we can about solar energy so we can use this technology to its fullest potential.