For decades, we have been told that solar power is key to helping us prevent climate change. That’s why global solar electricity generation is expected to increase by 145 terawatt-hours (TW/h) this year alone, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2021 report. But are solar panels good for the environment, or will this gigantic increase in panels come back to bite us?
In this article, we’ll cover the passive damages of solar energy, how the removal of solar panels can be harmful to both humans and the environment, and whether there are any improvements on the horizon for the solar industry.
Does solar panel production cause environmental damage?
There has been a long-standing argument that wind, solar and nuclear power have “hidden” carbon footprints, meaning they might not be as green as they seem.
But how harmful are solar panels? Well, the carbon footprint of an average solar photovoltaic (PV) system is between 14 and 73 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilowatt-hour (kWh).
Although this sounds like a lot for a renewable energy source, it is fairly harmless compared to the average emissions from burning oil: 742g CO2e per kWh.
If solar panel owners want their panels to be carbon-neutral (meaning they balance the CO2 they release into the atmosphere by removing the same amount), they will need to have their panels for at least three years. After three years of use, the overall carbon footprint of the solar panels drops to negative, as they will have prevented more emissions from being released into the atmosphere than it takes to create them.
How do solar panels mostly cause pollution?
When it comes to making solar panels, there is a vicious cycle of emissions. Before we can reduce our carbon footprint with solar power, factories need to create panels using a lot of electricity, which is usually generated from fossil fuels.
Depending on where the panels are made, the number of fossil fuels in the electricity mix will fluctuate. For example, in 2020, the UK’s energy mix was 2.9% coal, while 64% of China’s electricity generation came from coal. And since more than 60% of the world’s panels are made in China, most of the world’s supply of solar panels emits a lot of Co2 even before they start working.
There is a lot of complex science behind solar panels, and to transform sunlight into electricity there needs to be a lot of chemicals between the glass panes, many of which can be dangerous.
If solar cells are dumped into a landfill once they degrade, these complex-named chemicals can leach into the ground, contaminating both soil and drinking water.
Driving through fields littered with panels is now commonplace in most countries, and while this is great for both the energy sector and landowners, it doesn’t go down well with local wildlife.
As the transition to renewable energy increases, the global competition for land is predicted to only get worse. And with more humans fighting over fields, there will be an increase in water use and damage to biodiversity.
We’ll also start to see something called passive damages from land use change. This is when farmland is used for energy purposes, which indirectly increases competition for land in other parts of the world to meet the global demand for food.
Not going solar can hurt the environment
In many parts of the world, commercial solar panels only began to be rolled out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And with solar panels having an average life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, we’re only just beginning to see the consequences of wasting solar panels.
In 2016, it was estimated that there were around 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste worldwide. Looking ahead, this waste is expected to grow to 9.57 million tons by 2050.
If left in landfills, some solar panel materials can leach into the soil and groundwater, causing health and environmental problems, but there are ways to prevent this.
Reusing solar panels
Fortunately, solar panels can be recycled, but it is quite difficult to do so. A typical crystalline silicon photovoltaic panel is made from materials that can be recycled, including glass, polymer, aluminum, silicon, and copper. By reusing these items, we can decrease greenhouse gas emissions from solar panels by 42%.
Contrary to this, only a few countries recycle panels right now. For instance, China produces more than half of the solar modules in the world, like Longi mono panels, but has plans to recycle old panels. The same goes for most of the US solar panel hotspot areas.
What are solar panels beneficial to the environment?
Despite these flaws, solar power remains one of the best tools we have to deal with climate change. Fossil fuels are finite and running out fast. Solar energy, on the other hand, is renewable and won’t run out any time soon (not for a few billion years, anyway).
As if that weren’t reason enough to switch to renewables, solar emissions barely scratch the surface of fossil fuel carbon footprints.
Solar energy and our carbon footprint
As you can see, nuclear and wind power perform slightly better than solar, with a carbon footprint of four grams of CO2e per kWh. Unlike fossil fuel sources, the nuclear, wind, and solar power all sit comfortably below the 2050 emissions target.
In addition to benefiting entire nations, solar power can also help the humble homeowner, reducing a home’s carbon footprint by about a ton of carbon per year, depending on where they live.
The solar industry is expanding
The good news is: Solar panels are getting a lot greener over time. As technology advances, we see more innovation in the solar industry, with experts introducing more sustainable materials. Researchers at the University of Bath recently created a new material called Kesterite, formed only from copper, zinc, tin, and sulfur, elements that are quite cheap and abundant.
Solar panel recycling schemes are also becoming more popular around the world, although this is set to become more common for major solar panel companies in the US, China, and Japan. The global solar panel recycling market size is expected to grow at an annual growth rate of 12.8% between 2020 and 2027, so you can expect a solar equipment one stop shop in your area soon.