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Environmental Impacts of Solar

November 13, 2019

Solar PV systems are significantly beneficial to the environment in contrast with conventional energy resources. After installation, solar panels provide a means of generating electricity with zero emissions. Solar power produces clean energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change and health impacts in comparison to traditional sources like natural gas or fossil fuels. What you may not realize is that the entire lifespan of solar is not zero emissions. They are manufactured in a factory and, at the end of their use, recycled. These processes are the two portions of the solar lifespan that contribute to their environmental impact. It is important to remember that solar systems generate electricity free of emissions for 25 years or more, which often outweighs the adverse environmental effects during the manufacturing and processing stages.

Energy Payback Time

The environmental impacts of solar are not a negative net impact. The overall impact is determined by the energy payback time (EPBT). EPBT calculates the time it will take for solar panels to generate enough clean energy to “pay back” the energy utilized in the production process. EPBT takes into consideration different factors, including the productivity of your solar panels, how they were produced and where they are made. Residing in an area with a lot of sunlight will raise the efficiency of your panels, resulting in higher production of electricity, thus lower the EPBT. Solar panels also need to be transported from where they are made to the point of installation. If the panels are manufactured in China but installed in the US, the EPBT will be longer than if the panels are manufactured in the US, because they need to be transported further.

Negative Environmental Impacts of Solar

Energy: The manufacturing stage of solar requires energy upfront to convert raw minerals into the products used for photovoltaics. These minerals could include quarts, aluminum, copper, etc. Quartz must be processed and cleaned to obtain silicon, which acts like a semiconductor in solar cells. It is then manufactured with other materials, which may come from another facility, to build a solar module.

Chemicals: The process of producing solar grade silicon often involves the use of hazardous chemicals, which could impact the environment if not disposed of properly. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) tracks the environmental records of most major solar manufacturers in an annual report. As with any industry, many leading companies maintain proper regulations for disposal and recycling of chemical waste, while others may take potentially harmful shortcuts to save money.

Recycling: The recycling stage of solar panels has yet to become a significant issue. Although, in upcoming decades, the need for facilities will be relevant as solar panels need to be replaced. The process of recycling solar panels starts with removing the aluminum frame, which is 100% reusable. The encasing glass, which is also reusable, is removed next. Lastly, the silicon wafers are separated and smelted into reusable slabs. Technology always balances with demand, and many companies are already thinking ahead to alleviate the need for solar recycling plants.

The negative environmental impacts of solar are heavily front-loaded. Despite the reality that solar isn’t perfect, the energy required to create solar modules is generally “paid back” within 2 to 4 years! The emissions generated in the solar manufacturing process are 3 to 10 times less than that expected from producing the same amount of energy using fossil fuels.

Overall solar power has a positive net impact on the environment, and manufacturers are continually looking for new ways to enhance efficiency. In the past ten years alone, there has been a 62% decrease in materials used to create solar modules, which reduces the amount of energy needed in the manufacturing and processing stage. With the improvements in design and technology, the EPBT of solar will continue to decrease, and the overall benefits will outweigh the costs. Although solar power is not green energy throughout the entire lifespan yet, manufacturers are doing everything in their power to find more efficient ways to produce and recycle them. With a positive net impact, going solar today is what we as a society can do to ensure that we all take the next step into a more sustainable world.