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Debate: Solar thermal energy

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What are the pros and cons of solar thermal energy?

Background and context

Solar thermal energy is energy collected from the sun and used to generate heat. This heat is usually concentrated using mirrors, then used in heating water. Consumers use hot water in residences or businesses, or heat it until it turns into steam used to turn turbines, generating electricity. While solar thermal energy has many advantages, especially environmental ones, it has drawbacks, too.


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Pro

  • Solar thermal energy is renewable. Unlike energy from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, petroleum and coal, solar energy is infinitely renewable. This makes it much more of a long-term technology, that frees its owners and users of worrying about its depletion over time.
  • Solar thermal energy contributes to energy independence. The use of solar energy can make countries more energy-independent by reducing the energy they have to import.
  • Solar thermal energy is carbon neutral. Aside from the pollution expended in the manufacturing of the solar thermal energy device itself, once operational solar thermal energy produces almost no greenhouse gases.
  • Solar thermal produces non-polluting on a general level. It produces no toxic chemicals or greenhouse gases. This is obviously good for climate change, but it's also good locally.
  • Solar thermal is low-maintenance. After its initial installation, solar thermal energy is very low maintenance. Unlike devices that produce energy from coal or natural gas, users can leave solar thermal energy devices alone for a very long periods after installation. As a result, fewer employees and maintenance crews are required, helping lower the costs of energy production.



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Con

  • Solar therm energy is more expensive than conventional hydrocarbon. As of 2010, it is more expensive to producing solar energy than power from traditional fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. Generally, steam produced from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is cheaper than steam produced from solar thermal energy. The start-up costs of solar thermal energy devices are usually higher because of the greater expense per unit of energy generated. However, because solar thermal energy lacks a feedstock, in some situations it may be cheaper over time.
  • Solar thermal energy is inconsistent with weather patterns. Devices cannot generate solar thermal energy with the consistency of most fossil fuels, and cannot usually produce solar energy on cloudy days, or after dark. This makes it an unreliable source of energy and contributes to its expense, as those relying on solar energy must have back-up power sources.
  • Storage of electric energy from solar thermal is very challenging. Unlike fossil fuels, we cannot easily store either sunlight or hot water. This contributes to its unreliability, as users are unable to produce large amounts of energy for later consumption or for emergencies. While electricity generated by turbines can be stored in batteries, the storage is costly and inefficient. Hot water cannot be stored for long periods without a large loss of heat.


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