Is Solar Better Than Photovoltaic?

Introducing Solar and Photovoltaic Technologies

Solar energy refers to capturing energy from the sun and converting it into electricity or heat. Some common examples of solar technologies include solar water heating systems, concentrated solar power plants, and solar photovoltaic systems.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) specifically refers to solar panels or solar arrays that convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconductors. Photovoltaic cells absorb photons from sunlight and release electrons, generating an electric current.

The purpose of both solar energy and photovoltaics is to harness the sun’s energy as a clean, renewable source of power that can offset the use of fossil fuels. Solar technologies can be implemented on both small and large scales, from powering individual homes to providing electricity for entire cities. Their modular nature allows solar power to be scaled as needed.

How Solar and Photovoltaics Work

Solar energy systems, also known as solar thermal systems, convert the sun’s radiation into useful forms of energy such as heat and electricity. The sun produces energy in the form of photons or particles of light traveling in waves. When the photons strike the solar panels, they excite electrons in the solar cells, which generates a flow of electricity 1. This is called the photovoltaic effect.

Photovoltaic (PV) systems specifically convert sunlight directly into electricity using solar cells typically made of semiconducting materials like silicon. When photons from sunlight hit the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms of the material. The electrons flow through the material to produce electric current. The current is then drawn off by metal conductive plates for power 2.

In summary, solar thermal systems capture the sun’s heat energy, while photovoltaic systems convert the sunlight directly into electrical energy. Both technologies harness the power of the sun through photovoltaic effects on electrons to generate renewable energy.


The efficiency of solar and photovoltaic technologies refers to the portion of sunlight energy that can be converted into electricity. Solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) cells do this through the photovoltaic effect, enabling the direct conversion of light into electricity at the atomic level.

Typical commercial solar panels today have efficiencies of 17-22%, while lab PV cells have reached over 47% efficiency (1). However, solar thermal technologies that concentrate sunlight for steam or heating applications can have much higher efficiencies, over 80% in some cases (2).

Overall, concentrated solar thermal technologies are more efficient at converting sunlight into useful energy than photovoltaics. However, PV efficiencies have been increasing steadily, and panels are also modular and scalable, making them suitable for diverse distributed applications.





When analyzing and comparing installation and operating costs of solar and photovoltaics, there are several factors to consider. According to Forbes, the average cost to install solar panels in 2022 was around $16,000, or a range of $4,500 to $36,000 depending on system size, type of panels, and location. Photovoltaic panel prices have declined dramatically over the past few decades as manufacturing has scaled up. According to Our World In Data, solar PV module costs have fallen from around $75 per watt in 1977 to under $1 per watt today.

In terms of operating costs, both solar and photovoltaics have minimal costs after installation, as there are no fuel costs. Maintenance costs involve cleaning the panels and inverter/equipment maintenance. Solar thermal systems have higher operating costs as they require pumping power and occasional fluid replacement. Overall, while solar and photovoltaics have high upfront installation costs, their minimal operating costs can lead to cost savings in the long run compared to fossil fuel energy sources.

Environmental Impact

When comparing the environmental impact of solar power versus photovoltaics, there are advantages and disadvantages for both technologies. According to studies reviewed in Photovoltaic Institutional Issues Study (, solar power systems require large amounts of land for solar farms, which can impact wildlife habitats. Photovoltaic panels, on the other hand, can be installed on rooftops and existing structures, minimizing land use impact.

However, both solar and photovoltaic systems generate clean renewable energy without emissions, helping combat climate change and pollution. Solar thermal power plants require water for cooling, but photovoltaics use no water once installed. Overall, both technologies have a much lower environmental impact compared to fossil fuels.

When it comes to hazardous materials, solar thermal systems don’t use any toxic materials. But manufacturing photovoltaic panels does require some hazardous materials like cadmium and lead. Proper recycling and disposal of PV panels is important to prevent these materials from contaminating the environment.

In conclusion, while both solar and photovoltaics are far more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, each technology has different advantages and disadvantages in terms of land use, water use, hazardous materials, and wildlife impact. Careful system design and responsible manufacturing and disposal practices can help minimize the environmental footprint of both technologies.

solar and pv have advantages and disadvantages in terms of environmental impact

Aesthetics and Space

When comparing solar panels and photovoltaic panels, aesthetics and space requirements are important considerations. Solar panels typically have a distinctive look with dark blue cells and silver framing that some homeowners feel is unattractive on their roof. Photovoltaic panels, on the other hand, are often designed to blend in more seamlessly with a roof with black or grey colors. For those concerned about aesthetics, photovoltaic shingles that look just like regular asphalt shingles are also an option.

In terms of space requirements, solar panels generally need more surface area to produce the same amount of electricity as photovoltaic panels. This is because solar panel efficiency is around 15-20% while photovoltaic efficiency can be over 22%. A 1,000 square foot roof may fit a 6 kW solar array but an 8 kW photovoltaic system. For homes where roof space is limited, photovoltaics can allow homeowners to maximize energy production.

Overall, those who want their renewable energy system to have a lower visual profile and take up less space on their roof may prefer photovoltaic panels over traditional solar panels. However, solar panel manufacturers are working on integrating panels more seamlessly into roofs and improving efficiency to converge with photovoltaics.


Maintenance is an important consideration when comparing solar and photovoltaic systems. Proper maintenance helps ensure the systems operate efficiently over their lifetime. There are some differences in maintenance needs between the two technologies.

For solar hot water systems, maintenance involves checking and replacing components like circulating pumps, controllers, and glycol fluid over time. Flushing the collector panels annually is also recommended to remove mineral buildup. Typical maintenance costs for solar hot water systems range from $100-200 per year. According to Pacific Panel Cleaners, a solar maintenance company in Hawaii, regular cleaning and upkeep is key to maximizing solar hot water system performance.

Photovoltaic solar panel maintenance is simpler but still required. It involves keeping panels clean, checking connections, and clearing debris or shade from panels. Hiring a professional to clean PV panels every 1-3 years optimizes solar production. Annual PV maintenance costs around $150 on average. Companies like Fix My Solar specialize in solar panel maintenance and repair.

Overall, both solar thermal and solar PV systems require regular maintenance. Photovoltaics may have slightly lower annual maintenance costs but require more significant inverter repairs or replacements down the line. Proper maintenance helps maximize efficiency and lifespan for both technologies.

Weather Dependence

Both solar photovoltaics and solar thermal technologies rely on sunlight to generate energy, so weather conditions like cloud cover, precipitation, and ambient temperature can impact their performance. However, they are affected differently.

Photovoltaic systems are highly dependent on sunlight hitting the solar panels to generate electricity. Cloudy days and precipitation can significantly reduce energy output from PV panels, with energy production dropping as much as 50-80% on overcast days compared to sunny days (Source).Ambient temperature also impacts PV output, but to a lesser extent. Colder temperatures can slightly improve PV efficiency and energy production.

In contrast, solar thermal technologies like concentrated solar power plants are less impacted by cloud cover and precipitation. The thermal energy storage incorporated in CSP allows energy production to continue even when direct sunlight is blocked. However, CSP output is more dependent on ambient temperature. Efficiency and power output drops at higher temperatures. At very cold temperatures, CSP systems may need to be heated to avoid freezing.

Overall, PV is more sensitive to cloud cover and precipitation changes, while CSP is more impacted by temperature swings. But both technologies can continue providing solar energy even in adverse weather conditions.

Use Cases

Solar and photovoltaic technologies have a wide range of ideal use cases depending on the specific needs and constraints of the application. Here are some key examples:

Solar farms utilize large arrays of photovoltaic panels to generate electricity at scale and feed into the power grid. The massive energy generation potential makes solar farms ideal for supplying renewable energy to utilities and communities (Source 1).

Off-grid applications like remote cabins, RVs, and boats can benefit from solar photovoltaics to generate electricity independently. The modular nature of solar panels makes them easy to install in remote locations without existing infrastructure (Source 2).

Small-scale residential systems allow homeowners to reduce electricity bills by supplying some or all of their energy needs with solar panels on their rooftops. Net metering programs can even allow excess solar electricity to be sold back to the grid (Source 3).

Solar water heating systems are ideal for supplying hot water using solar thermal collectors on building rooftops. This application takes advantage of the renewable and abundant heat energy from sunlight.

Spacecraft and satellites often rely on photovoltaic panels to generate power from sunlight in space. The lack of atmosphere and consistent solar exposure are ideal for photovoltaics in space-based applications.


After exploring the pros and cons of solar and photovoltaic technologies, there are a few key considerations.

Solar is generally more efficient than photovoltaics at converting sunlight into electricity. However, photovoltaics may score higher on cost, maintenance, and aesthetics for certain applications. Both technologies have negligible environmental impact once installed.

For residential homes, rooftop photovoltaic panels tend to be the better choice. They are less expensive, easier to install, and more visually appealing than large solar arrays. For utility-scale projects, ground-mount solar farms can generate a lot of renewable power efficiently.

Overall, solar and photovoltaics both have an important role to play. Focusing on the strengths of each technology for particular uses cases is recommended. With solar and PV advancing and costs decreasing, utilizing both solutions can accelerate the transition to cleaner energy.

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