The Truth About The Environmental Impact Of Solar Panels

Jessica PirroFebruary 7, 2020 3610 2

Solar Energy’s Environmental Impact

When it comes to getting a solar panel installation a lot of benefits come to mind, there are the financial benefits of solar panels, the environmental benefits of solar energy, and in some cases the aesthetic benefits that solar panels give your roof. Today we are going to talk about the environmental impact of solar panels.

When your solar panels generate solar electricity, they aren’t going to produce any carbon emissions, which means that, once installed, the solar panels aren’t going to contribute to climate change or health issues like the traditional energy sources. Solar energy comes from the sun, which is an abundant resource that will continue to available and accessible across the entire world, for the foreseeable future.

But there are potential environmental impacts that are associated with solar power systems. Some of the impacts are land-use impacts, ecological impacts, impacts to the water, air, and soil, and other impacts like socioeconomic ones, and can vary depending on the solar energy technology, which includes two different categories:

- Photovoltaic Solar Panels

- Concentrating Solar Thermal Plants (CSP)

Solar Energy’s Environmental Impact

Solar panels aren’t going to produce any emissions once they are installed on your roof, meaning that they aren’t going to have an environmental impact for most of their life. But solar panels aren’t going to be zero-emissions resources for their entire lifetime. The reason for this is because the solar panels have to be manufactured in a factory first, and at the end of their lifetime, they have to be recycled. This is where the environmental impact of solar panels come into

A lot of researchers formulate the environmental impact of solar energy with the concept of energy payback, or EPBT. The EPBT is what tells us how long it will take for solar panels to produce enough solar electricity to “payback” the solar energy that was used to produce them. This calculation will vary depending on a few different factors, which includes:

- The productivity of your solar panel installation. If you live in an area that has a lot of sunlight, and your solar panel installation is very efficient, then your solar power system is going to generate more solar electricity and have a shorter EPBT.

- How your solar panels are manufactured. Certain solar panels are going to require more solar energy to produce than others. The thin-film solar panels are going to have a smaller footprint than silicon solar panels because they are going to need less energy to make them.

- The location of your solar panels is made. Solar panels need to be moved from where they were made to the location that the solar panel installation is. If your solar panels are made in Europe or Asia but are being installed in the United State then they had to be transported further, which requires more energy usage and will increase their EPBT.

Land Use and Ecological Impacts

In the point of generating solar electricity at a utility-scale, solar energy facilities necessitate large areas for collections of solar energy. Because of this, the facilities might interfere with existing land uses and may impact the use of certain areas like wilderness or recreational management areas.

As solar power systems might impact land through materials exploration, extraction, manufacturing, and disposal, energy in such a way that returning to a pre-disturbed state necessitates significant energy input or time, or both, while other uses are more dramatic where these changes are irreversible.

Recycling Solar Panels

Currently, the recycling of solar panels is a big issue, specifically, there aren’t enough locations to recycle old solar panels, and there are currently not enough non-operational solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive. Recycling solar panels is particularly important because the materials used to make the solar panels are rare or precious metals, all of them being composed of silver, tellurium, or indium. Due to the recycling the Solar panels being limited, those recoverable metals might be going to waste might result in the resources being limited in the future.

Take silicon, for example, this resource that is vital to making most of the solar panels that are currently on the market, right now silicon is abundant, but a silicon-based solar cell is going to require a lot of energy input in its manufacturing process, the sources of that energy is oftentimes going to be coal, determining how large the solar cells carbon footprint is going to be.

The lack of awareness in regards to the manufacturing process of the solar panels and to the issue of recycling these and the absence of external pressure are the causes of the insufficiency in driving significant change in the recycling of the materials used in the manufacturing process.

The Environmental Impact of Solar Panels is Overall Net Positive

There is good news, the EPBT of a solar panel installation is going to be dependant on many factors, and the market is moving in the right direction. In the 70s, the average EPBT for solar panels was 40 years. But in 2010, the number fell to only 6 months.

As the solar power industry grew, solar energy manufacturers are constantly looking for more ways to improve solar panels efficiency, meaning that the solar panels EPBT is only going to continue to decrease. In the past 10 years, the solar energy industry has seen a 62% decrease in the amount of material used for silicon solar cells, thanks in part to an increase in solar panels efficiency and thinner designs. Meaning that there’s less energy is spent processing silicon during the manufacturing process. As more solar panels are retired, recycling them will become more cost-effective and more efficient, which will further reduce their EPBT.

On top of that, it’s going to be important to keep in mind that solar panels can generate electricity for anywhere between 25 to 35 years. For the average homeowners, getting a solar panel installation is going to like eliminating the emission that is created by a car that drives 18,000 miles per year - which is a tremendous environmental benefit. So, though the environmental impact of solar panels is going to more than zero, the overall environmental benefits of solar energy are going to far outweigh the cost.

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