Let’s come together to help protect our planet – switch to solar panels now!
Undoubtedly, solar panels are an incredible source of renewable energy since they don’t emit carbon or any other hazardous pollutants while producing electricity. But how “clean” is the process used to construct these panels? Surprisingly enough, many people overlook this fact.
Surprisingly, the production of solar panels is dependent on fossil fuels. Furthermore, mining for rare metals to craft such panels contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in our environment.
We are not here to criticize the application of solar panels, but rather to be open and honest about the effects they have on our environment — both negative and positive. Before we analyze this in greater detail, let’s first make that clear.
The Carbon Footprint of a Solar Panel
Solar panels are an ecologically conscious form of energy, yet the means to produce them entail a hefty carbon footprint. Mining and melting processes must be employed before they can cool down enough for use-all of which require considerable resources from our planet.
Environmental Impact of Mining for Solar Panel Materials
Solar cells are mainly composed of silicon semiconductors, glass, and metals like silver, copper, indium and tellurium. And when talking about solar batteries – lithium is also included in the list. The good news is that obtaining silicon and glass won’t cause any environmental harm since they’re widely available and non-toxic sources; however, on the other hand extracting these metals leads to air pollution as well as soil contamination due to its greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental Impact of Solar Panel Facilities
Above all else, it is vital to remember that solar facilities can be immense. It’s not far-fetched to say that many times wildlife and leisure spots are eliminated in order for the construction of solar panel factories. Regretfully, the maintenance of solar panel facilities demands a great amount of energy, and much of this energy is derived from coal-burning processes – especially in China where air pollution levels have already surpassed acceptable limits.
The need for water to keep the cooling process going can be a real issue in dry climates, where access to adequate supplies of this precious resource is scarce. Furthermore, just like any other heavy industrial facility, solar panel production sites produce air pollution.
Environmental Impact of Solar Panel Manufacturing
Three distinct types of solar panels exist— monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film —each with their own exclusive fabrication process. As a result, these diverse models generate varying levels of carbon footprints.
Manufacturing Monocrystalline Panels: Monocrystalline solar panels are the most prevalent and offer the best energy conversion efficiency, usually between 19 to 22%. These panels are created with pure single-cell silicon crystals sandwiched in thin glass.
Constructing a monocrystalline solar panel is an intricate process that begins with a sizable block of silicon and ends with thin wafers being attached onto the completed panel. Fortunately, this complex construction method results in the highest efficiency rating among all other methods of solar manufacturing – even if it does produce more emissions than those others.
Manufacturing Polycrystalline Panels: Polycrystalline solar panels are fashioned from silicon, albeit in a different way than monocrystalline. This type of panel is crafted by melting together the silicon crystals and then setting them on to the board. The process does require a smaller amount of electricity compared to monocrystalline but still needs some energy expenditure.
Manufacturing Thin-Film Panels: Finally, you have thin-film solar panels constructed from a variety of materials including amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride (a type of silicon) and copper indium gallium selenide. These innovative solutions offer assuring efficiency with incredible results.
Thin-film solar panels are a great option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint and be more eco-friendly. Unfortunately, they’ve been created with highly toxic materials that can pose risks to both humans and the environment if not handled correctly.
Environmental Impact of Transporting Solar Panels
Being mindful of solar panel transportation emissions is essential. Solar panels are mainly created in China, with the U.S and Europe coming second and third respectively; however, it may be needed for shipments from another country to assemble one single panel. These complex supply chains can make mitigating emissions difficult.
Truth be told, definitive conclusions about the size of a solar panel’s carbon footprint during each step of its production remain uncertain. Unfortunately, not much research has been conducted or data released on this topic concerning the environmental effects associated with creating solar panels. The Coalition on Materials Research Transparency is taking determined steps to measure and quantify the carbon footprint associated with mining, producing, and transporting solar panels.
It is essential to bear in mind that although the amount of carbon emissions produced by solar panel production is still far lower than traditional energy facilities, it is minimal when compared to oil drilling, fracking or coal mining.
Apart from production, another significant obstacle associated with solar panels is what occurs once they reach their typical 25-year lifespan.
A Larger Issue: Solar Panel Recycling
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has set an ambitious goal to have solar energy contribute to 30% of total US energy generation by 2030. If met, this would require the installation of over 1 billion photovoltaic cells across the nation in just ten years!
This is fantastic news for lessening carbon dioxide emissions, but raises a larger problem within the solar industry: recycling of solar panels.
Despite the dedicated efforts of scientists, there is currently no expansive system in place to recycle used solar panels. Furthermore, this lack of available resources makes it hard for individuals to properly dispose of their old panels.
In addition to the precious metals used in their construction, solar panels also have a substantial carbon footprint. This can be significantly reduced if these resources could be recycled and reused instead of being mined anew – yet lack of access to recycling programs is only exacerbating e-waste levels, which may eventually lead to materials scarcity.
How Much Better is Solar for the Environment?
Although solar panels may have some negative environmental impacts, their use is still significantly more beneficial than employing non-renewable energy sources.
Taking the carbon footprint of solar panels into account, research demonstrates that coal produces a whopping 18 times more emissions than solar and natural gas creates an enormous 13 times greater emission level. Additionally, it is worth emphasizing that once they are produced, solar energy emits absolutely no pollution whatsoever. It’s thus clear why studies have heralded solar as a fundamental solution to slowing climate change.
As SEIA predicts, if solar energy continues to thrive and expand its reach, the technology must be advanced in order to help reduce any unfavorable effects that come from producing solar panels. Additionally, efficient methods for recycling these materials must also be established and put into practice.
Solar panels offer a clean and accessible form of renewable energy that can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly. But, it’s important to acknowledge the environmental consequences associated with producing solar panels, notably the emissions created during transportation and their potential for becoming e-waste. Achieving SEIA’s goal of 30% of total US energy generation by 2030 will prove extremely beneficial for the environment, yet advancements must be made in order to reduce any environmental impacts associated with solar panel production. By continuing to invest in research and development, we can ensure a sustainable future that is powered by clean energy sources.
How much of a carbon footprint do solar panels create?
Research suggests that coal produces 18 times more emissions than solar and natural gas creates an enormous 13 times greater emission level. Additionally, once they are produced and installed, solar energy emits absolutely no pollution whatsoever.
What happens to used solar panels after their 25-year lifespan?
Currently there is no expansive system in place to recycle used solar panels. Furthermore, this lack of available resources makes it hard for individuals to properly dispose of their old panels. This can be significantly reduced if these resources could be recycled and reused instead of being mined anew – yet lack of access to recycling programs is only exacerbating e-waste levels, which may eventually lead to materials scarcity.
What are the environmental impacts of solar panels?
Solar panels offer a clean and accessible form of renewable energy that can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly. But, it’s important to acknowledge the environmental consequences associated with producing solar panels, notably the emissions created during transportation and their potential for becoming e-waste. In addition to the precious metals used in their construction, solar panels also have a substantial carbon footprint. However, environmental impacts associated with solar panel production can be significantly reduced if efficient methods for recycling these materials are established and put into practice.
Jonas Muthoni is an entrepreneur and renewable energy expert. He is the founder of MicroGridMedia.com, a website dedicated to bringing the latest news and information about solar energy and other renewable energy sources to the public. Jonas is passionate about promoting sustainable energy solutions and educating the public about the benefits of renewable energy. He is a regular speaker at industry events and conferences and is committed to driving the transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.