Are Photovoltaic Solar Panels Good?

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are devices that convert sunlight into electricity. They have become an increasingly popular source of renewable energy in recent years, with solar installations growing at a rapid pace worldwide. However, PV panels also spark debate, with discussions around their efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Proponents argue that solar energy will play a major role in combating climate change and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Critics contend that the benefits are overstated and that solar remains prohibitively expensive. This article aims to provide an objective look at PV solar panels, outlining the pros and cons as well as the outlook for the future.

How They Work

Photovoltaic solar panels contain photovoltaic cells made up of semiconducting materials like silicon. When sunlight hits these cells, the photons in the light excite electrons in the semiconducting material, causing the electrons to break free of their atomic bonds. This generates electron flow, which we call electricity. The photovoltaic cells are wired together in modules inside the solar panel to produce a usable voltage and direct current (DC). An inverter then converts this DC into alternating current (AC), which powers our homes and businesses.

The photovoltaic effect that allows solar panels to generate electricity was first discovered in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel. It works because when certain materials absorb light, the absorbed photons provide energy to electrons in the material, causing them to move. This flow of electrons is what we know as electricity.

Solar panel efficiency refers to what percentage of the sunlight hitting the panels gets converted into usable electricity. Most residential solar panels are 15-22% efficient, while the most advanced commercial panels can reach over 20% efficiency.


The efficiency of solar panels describes how much of the sunlight that hits the panels gets converted into electricity. Early solar panels had low efficiencies of only 5-10%. However, modern commercial solar panels now typically have 15-22% efficiency. This means 15-22% of the solar energy is converted to electrical energy.

There have been steady improvements in solar panel efficiency over the past few decades thanks to advances in solar cell technology and manufacturing techniques. Some experimental high-efficiency solar panels in laboratories have exceeded 40% efficiency.

The key factors that determine solar panel efficiency include the semiconductor materials used, the cell design, and how the individual cells are wired together in a panel. Silicon-based panels tend to have efficiencies in the 15-22% range. More exotic semiconductors like gallium arsenide can reach over 30% but are more expensive.

Higher solar panel efficiencies mean you can get more electricity generation from a given surface area. So improving efficiency reduces the number of panels needed for a system, which helps lower costs. While commercial efficiencies continue to slowly increase, most industry experts think we are getting close to the practical efficiency limits for standard single-junction silicon solar cells.


The cost of solar panels has decreased dramatically over the past 10 years, making them much more affordable for homeowners and businesses. However, they still require a significant upfront investment. There are several factors that influence the cost of a photovoltaic solar panel system:

Equipment costs – The solar panels themselves account for about 25-35% of the total system cost. Other equipment like inverters, wiring, mounts and meters make up another 10-15%.

Installation costs – For residential systems, labor typically accounts for 10-25% of the total cost, while for commercial systems it’s 25-35% of the cost. More complex installations on steep roofs or large commercial systems require more labor.

Permitting fees – Most local jurisdictions require permits and inspections for solar installations, which add a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on your area.

Size of the system – Larger systems produce more energy but also cost more upfront. Residential systems range from 2-10 kilowatts, while commercial scale systems can be 100 kilowatts or larger. The per watt cost tends to decrease for larger systems.

solar panels on roof of house.
Location – Installation costs are higher in some regions than others, primarily due to labor costs. Systems are more expensive in areas like California versus states with lower labor costs like Texas or Florida.

Net metering – Areas with net metering make solar more economically attractive by giving credit for excess energy fed back into the grid. Lack of net metering can decrease cost-effectiveness.

Incentives/rebates – Many federal, state and local governments offer tax credits, rebates or other incentives that effectively reduce the upfront cost by 10-30% or more. However, incentives vary significantly by location.

Environmental Impact

When comparing solar panels to fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, solar comes out far ahead in terms of environmental impact. Fossil fuels release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when burned. This leads to climate change, ocean acidification, smog, and air pollution. Fossil fuel extraction and transportation also carry major environmental risks like oil spills and habitat destruction.

In contrast, solar panels produce clean, renewable electricity directly from the sun without releasing any emissions. The only emissions come from the manufacturing process, transportation, and installation of the panels, which is far less than the emissions from fossil fuels. One study found solar panels offset their own emissions within just 1 to 3 years of operation through clean energy production. After that, they provide decades of zero-emission energy.

Solar panels can also be recycled at the end of their roughly 30 year lifespan to minimize waste. And they don’t require mining or drilling which reduces habitat loss. Solar energy also uses very little water compared to fossil fuels. This makes it ideal for arid, sunny regions.

While solar farms do take up significant land space, the panels are mounted off the ground so the land underneath can still be used for other purposes like grazing livestock. Rooftop solar integrates easily into the built environment without requiring any additional land usage. Overall, solar energy provides huge advantages for the environment compared to fossil fuels.


Solar panels are generally very reliable and require little maintenance over their lifespan. Most solar panels come with warranties of 25-30 years and can last even longer if properly taken care of. They have no moving parts that can break down and their electrical components are enclosed to protect them from the elements.

However, solar power is intermittent and relies on sufficient sunlight. Output varies throughout the day and seasons as clouds pass overhead or when snow covers the panels. But solar energy can be paired with batteries to store excess electricity for use when the sun isn’t shining. Newer solar inverters can also forecast weather patterns to optimize energy production.

At the utility-scale, solar is very consistent and predictable when spread over large geographic areas. Solar energy production can be accurately forecasted to match demand, making it a reliable grid resource. Overall, solar PV systems are low-maintenance, durable, and their power production over decades of operation is very stable and foreseeable.


While solar panels have many benefits, they also come with some limitations and disadvantages that are important to consider. Some of the main limitations include:

High Upfront Costs – The installation of solar panels can be quite expensive upfront, anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on system size and other factors. This high initial investment means solar panels are not accessible or affordable for all homeowners.

Weather Dependence – Solar panels rely on direct sunlight to effectively generate electricity. Their productivity can be hindered on cloudy days or during storms, reducing energy output. In northern climates, winter months with shorter daylight hours also limit solar production.

Space Requirements – Solar panels need adequate unshaded space for installation, especially to maximize sun exposure throughout the day. Limited roof space or property area can restrict the number of panels installed.

Aesthetic Concerns – Some homeowners associations and neighbors oppose visible solar panel installations for aesthetic reasons. This can limit installation options.

Batteries Required for Off-Grid Storage – For solar systems not tied to the electric grid, batteries are needed to store excess electricity for use when the sun is not shining. These batteries add cost and maintenance.

Evolving Technology Requirements – As solar panel technology advances, components may need upgrading over time for homeowners to stay current. This adds recurring upgrade and replacement costs over the system lifetime.

Government Incentives

Many governments around the world offer incentives for homeowners and businesses to install solar panels. These incentives aim to encourage the adoption of renewable energy and help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. The main types of solar incentives include:

Tax credits – The federal government offers a 26% tax credit for installing solar panels on residential and commercial properties. Many states and utilities also have additional tax credits and rebates. These credits directly reduce the amount of taxes owed.

Net metering – With net metering, any excess solar energy fed back to the grid results in a credit on the customer’s utility bill. This credit rolls over month-to-month, offsetting electricity usage at night or on cloudy days.

Performance-based incentives – Also known as Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), these provide payments based on the amount of renewable energy generated. Solar panel owners can sell RECs for additional income.

Low-interest loans – Some municipalities and non-profits offer low-interest loans to cover the upfront costs of installing a solar array. This makes the payback period shorter.

Property tax exemptions – A few areas provide exemptions from property tax increases if the rise in value is due to installing solar panels. This avoids penalizing solar adopters via higher taxes.

The availability and value of incentives varies greatly by location. But they can make a significant difference in the financial calculation of whether going solar pencils out. Many solar incentives phase out over time or have caps, so it is advisable for homeowners to take advantage sooner rather than later.

Future Outlook

The future looks bright for photovoltaic solar panel adoption. As prices continue to fall and efficiency improves, solar power is projected to become one of the cheapest and most abundant energy sources globally.

According to most analysts, we are still in the early stages of the growth trajectory for solar. Current solar capacity meets only about 2% of global electricity demand. But that is expected to rise significantly in the coming decades. Under most scenarios, solar could provide 20-50% of total global electricity by 2050.

What factors will drive growth? First, panel costs have dropped 90% in the last 10 years and will continue falling as technology improves. Second, more homes and businesses are investing in storage to use solar power around the clock. Third, government incentives remain strong in many regions. Fourth, concern about climate change is accelerating the transition to renewable energy.

In addition, solar power offers energy independence and security. Once installed, the fuel source is free and available everywhere the sun shines. This makes solar an attractive option for developing nations looking to expand energy access. It also appeals to corporations and homeowners wanting predictable electricity prices.

Overall, as solar power reaches cost parity with fossil fuels, its clean, renewable nature positions it as a key energy source of the future.


In summary, there are several pros and cons to consider when evaluating if photovoltaic solar panels are good:


  • Clean, renewable source of energy from the sun
  • Decrease reliance on fossil fuels
  • Can lower electricity bills over time
  • Technology is improving efficiency
  • Government incentives can help lower installation costs


  • High upfront installation costs
  • Efficiency depends on location and weather
  • Can’t produce electricity at night
  • Require proper positioning and maintenance
  • May not work well for all homes and buildings

Overall, solar panels can be a smart investment for many homeowners, businesses and organizations looking to utilize renewable energy, decrease fossil fuel dependence and reduce long-term electricity costs. However, the high initial investment means they may not be feasible or worthwhile for everyone. Careful analysis of solar potential, electricity needs and financing options is required. Yet, as the technology continues advancing and costs keep declining, photovoltaic solar panels will likely play an expanding role in energy production.

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