5 disadvantages of solar energy — what you can do to overcome them
Published on 24 May, 2019 by Zeeshan Hyder
Last updated on 05 Jun, 2019
5 minutes read
I am a big advocate of residential solar power. Thanks to dramatic improvements in price and efficiency, solar has become an easy and affordable way for homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint and combat climate change. Best of all, in many cases homeowners can save tens of thousands of dollars in the process — a real win-win situation.
That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that solar power isn’t always ideal. As with every other power source, using solar comes with unique limitations and obstacles.
After reading this article and doing their research, some homeowners might decide that the downsides are just too big to either overcome or ignore, and decide against going solar.
Others will assess the drawbacks and find that they are more than outweighed by the advantages, and conclude that solar panels a worthwhile and rewarding investment.
So what are the disadvantages of solar power? And what can be done to overcome them? The cost of solar panels is the biggest obstacle for most homeowners, so this is the challenge I address in most detail.
Disadvantage #1: The high initial investment cost of solar
Let’s not mince words: residential solar panels don’t come cheap. An installed home solar system will cost you anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000, depending on where you live and what your requirements are. As of May 2019, a typical 6kW home solar system, bought upfront with cash, costs an average of $19,080.
That amount gets reduced by the federal tax credit — 30% if you use it in 2019 — bringing the total down to $13,356. That’s an improvement, but its still no small chunk of change.
Solution: Reduce the cost of solar panels with these 3 strategies
Cost is the biggest obstacle for most people when it comes to solar panels. Luckily, there are many strategies you can employ to bring down the total cost as avoid paying a large sum upfront.
1. Buy cheaper solar panels
When buying anything technology-related, we’re often tempted by the newest and most advanced product out there. The latest iPhone, an 8K TV, and so forth.
Doing this with solar would probably mean would mean buying the most efficient model of solar panel currently available, or a high-end concept like the great-looking but expensive Tesla Solar Roof or the highly-efficient but also-expensive SmartFlower.
Now, it must be said: the most efficient solar panels are great modules, just as the Solar Roof and SmartFlower are brilliant ideas. They are made by the most reputable solar manufacturers, are of high quality, and can be helpful in overcoming space constraints. But these premium features come at a very premium price, with the result that none of these products represent good value for money.
Meanwhile, there are lots of other solar panels that aren’t considered top-of-their-class, but are both more affordable and good enough to be classified as Tier 1. You should definitely consider such brands as you do your solar research.
For the sake of illustration, let’s compare two of the top-selling solar panel modules currently on the market. This is not an endorsement of any particular brand, but rather a comparison of premium specs vs value:
Table 1. Compared: premium solar panels vs value solar panels
Claim to fame
US-based company, considered to be the best manufacturer of solar panels in the world
Fast-growing Chinese company, believed to be the largest manufacturer of monocrystalline panels
What’s special about it
Most efficient solar panel module on the market
One of the cheapest Tier 1 modules available
Avg. cost per watt (after ITC)
Avg. cost for 6kW system (after ITC)
This table clearly shows that solar system cost can vary quite a bit based on the brand you opt for.
For more solar panel cost data, see current prices for different solar panel brands on SolarReviews, or read our recommendations for the best solar panels based on efficiency and value for money.
Unlock prices of both premium and value solar panels!
2. Cut or eliminate upfront costs by getting a solar loan
First up, you should know that buying solar panels outright with cash offers the best return on investment. But not everyone has that kind of money on hand. Luckily, there are now many solar financing options you can use to pay for your solar system. Many of them are available with no money down.
And get this: many homeowners who take a solar loan actually start saving money from the very first month. This happens when your electricity bill immediately falls by more than your monthly loan repayment, improving your household cash flow.
Solar loans have become a popular way to finance the installation of solar panels for homes and businesses. In fact, almost half of all new residential solar panel installations are completed with solar loans.
As always, we recommend you do your research. The lower the interest rate on your loan, the bigger your savings from solar panels. We also recommend that you arrange financing yourself as you can usually negotiate a better deal this way. Getting a loan through installation companies is more expensive as they and their financing partners often add a hidden origination fee.
See a solar loan forecast that shows your monthly savings and payments
3. Apply solar incentives to reduce solar panel cost
We’ve already mentioned the federal investment tax credit (ITC). This is a huge incentive — it lops a whopping 30% off your system cost! And it’s easy to apply for. The only catch is that you have to be an active taxpayer — don’t worry if the credit is higher than your tax liability; the excess amount can be rolled over to following years.
In addition to the ITC, many states offer rebates, property and sales tax exemptions, and other benefits. Massachusetts, New York and California are some notable states with very generous solar incentives.
Check what incentives are available in your state by checking our solar incentive guide or by using our solar calculator, which will show you all solar incentives available to homeowners in your zip code.
See which solar incentives you are eligible for!
Disadvantage #2: Solar panels are an intermittent power source
This is one of the biggest and most obvious disadvantages of solar. Solar panels can only produce when there is sunlight shining on them. After sunset, solar power output goes down to zero and stay there until daybreak the following morning. This makes solar panels intermittent: they only work some of the time.
Why is this important? Because it means that solar panels on their own cannot provide your home with a consistent 24/7 power supply.
The amount of available sunlight obviously fluctuates based on a number of factors, including the time of day and the season of the year. And after sundown there’s no sunlight at all, so power output goes all the way down, and stays that way until daybreak the following morning.
Solution: Overcome intermittency with net metering or battery storage
Those living in states where net metering is offered are in luck: they have access to the best energy storage option around! Net metering offers an easy way to store the economic value of your surplus electricity. How does this work? During the day your solar panels produce surplus output; this gets sent to the grid. Later at night when your solar panels don’t work, you draw power from the grid and get back the amount you originally sent to the grid for free. You’ll only pay for the difference between what you exported and imported, plus any connection charges.
Net metering reduces utility bills so much that homeowners should seriously think about locking in a contract before the incentive is removed. The contracts are usually valid for 20 years, which means that you are guaranteed to get a good return on your solar panels for a full 2 decades.
If net metering is not an option for you, then you can consider battery storage. With batteries, instead of sending your excess power to the grid, you store it on-site for later use. If you size your solar system and batteries correctly, you should have enough electricity to cover all of your needs, meaning you can go completely off-grid.
Right now it’s easier than ever to go off-grid, thanks to high-quality smart battery solutions such as the Tesla Powerwall. That being said at their current prices we find that batteries are still not financially worth it, especially where net metering is available.
Disadvantage #3: Solar panels require suitable roof space or ground space
To install a solar system you need a large surface area where you can mount solar panels. And it can’t be just any ol’ space — it must have adequate exposure to sunlight.
This poses a problem where the roofing material isn’t suited to holding panels, or the roof is just too small to fit an adequate number of panels.
Even if you do have a space that fits the bill, you may get blocked by an uncooperative HOA (homeowner’s association). These organizations can be picky about maintaining a consistent appearance for neighborhood housing.
And then there’s the challenges faced by apartment- and condo-dwellers. They usually have conjoined walls and shared rooftops managed through common ownership. The installation of solar panels is hard to pull off in these circumstances.
Calculate how much roof space you need for solar panels!
Solution: Choose more efficient solar panels and/or think outside the rooftop
Many people assume that not having a large roof automatically means that you can’t go solar. Luckily, that’s not quite the case and there are several ways to work around this constraint.
For one, you can make the most of a small roof by buying high-efficiency solar panels. A 300 watt solar panel with high efficiency doesn’t produce any more power than a low-efficiency 300 watt panel, but it does take up less space. The more efficient the solar panels, the less space your solar system will take.
Another option is to skip the roof altogether and find another place for the panels. Solar panels can actually be placed on any flat surface as long as they are exposed to sunlight. Ground mounted panels are a great solution; they cost more than roof-mounted panels but usually produce more power as they’re easier to optimise.
There’s lots of other places you can put solar panels. Solar carports are becoming very popular, and are often paired with electric vehicles. Solar pergolas, gazebos and patio shades can do the job too.
And if none of these options work, you can always look into community solar instead.
Disadvantage #4: Reduced sunlight affects solar system performance
Each solar panel is designed to produce a rated maximum power output. But they generate that amount of electricity only under optimal sunlight conditions. The rest of the time effective output will be a varying percentage of the maximum, based on the amount of sunlight they're receiving.
So if you live in a rainy area, or somewhere with long dark winters, your solar panel output will be affected. While solar panels do still work on cloudy days, your solar system will not achieve the same electricity generation seen in sunnier locales which have higher levels of solar insolation (the amount of sunlight hitting the ground).
It’s the same deal where solar systems are located on houses that are covered in shade. If trees completely shade your roof, or your home is located behind tall buildings, your solar panels output will be compromised.
Solution: Produce more solar power with the sunlight available
Solar panels require sunlight to produce power; the more, the better. If anything is blocking sunlight from hitting your solar panels, you need to remove it — or work around it. For example, if trees are casting shade on your roof, consider pruning them or even transplanting them to another location. Or if you can’t position the solar panels properly on your roof, think about putting them somewhere else on your property.
If you still expect that your solar system output will produce less power, because of either climate or weather conditions where you live, you can:
- Get a bigger solar system to increase your total overall output. You will earn a large surplus of net metering credits in the summer, and use them to cancel out your winter electricity bills. This is often done in the northern states.
- Consider solar panels with axis-tracking technology, such as the Smartflower. This tech allows solar panels to follow the sun across the sky. These panels receive more solar irradiation than fixed solar panels, increasing their total output. The Smartflower is a smart piece of technology, but be warned: it comes with a big price premium.
Disadvantage #5: The manufacture and disposal of solar panels causes pollution
The photovoltaic process by which solar panels converts sunlight into energy is, of course, completely clean. But the solar panels manufacturing process typically happens in factories and processes that rely on fossil fuels, and thus involves the release of carbon emissions.
There are also concerns surrounding solar panel disposal at the end of their useful life. Panels are made up of metals, glass and plastics — and environmental groups are concerned about what will happen to all of it down the line.
Solution: Be assured the net impact of your solar is overwhelmingly green
Yes, solar panel production process involves the emission of carbon. But it’s important to note that this pollution is more than offset by the big carbon savings you accrue over the 25+ year life of your clean-running solar panels.
In fact, research by the U.S. Department of Energy has found that solar panel carbon savings outweigh the carbon cost many times over. They estimate that within just a couple of years of use solar panels more than compensate for the pollution caused during their manufacture. In other words, the solar power energy payback time is very short.
As for the disposal of the solar panels, the good news is that recycling programs and incentives have been established. It’s estimated that 90% of the panel’s materials can successfully be recycled. And since solar panels can last up to 30 years, there’s plenty of time for these initiatives to be upscaled.
Which disadvantages are relevant to me — and how can I overcome them?
The main disadvantages to your solar panel installation will be uniquely yours. Your solar challenges may not be the same as residents in another part of the country. In fact, the solar installation problems your home may face can be entirely different than even your neighbor’s.
Your first task is to have your home and property evaluated by a local solar energy professional. You need to know what solar options are available given your architecture and location.
You also need to understand the process for going solar with your utility.
Going solar: Is it worth it?
Once again, there are many cost variables, including where you live and what local incentives are available in your area. Use a solar panel cost and savings calculator to get an estimate of your investment and ROI.
The financing options you have available in your area might also different than another community’s. There are some national companies that are solar-financing-specific, but may have 10% or higher “origination fees.” Companies like Mosaic offer incentives and also partner with your local solar company.