There are multiple facts, myths, and opinions about solar energy circulating on social media, online forums, conversation boards, and media channels. Many of these channels say the ecological costs and impacts of harnessing solar energy outweigh the benefits, which can cloud the decision of whether making the switch to solar is worthwhile. A closer look at this issue is warranted for anyone who is trying to have a positive environmental impact.
In any discussion about solar energy and its potential for environmental benefit or harm, it is important to evaluate the impact of the production and manufacturing of solar panels and equipment and the generation of electricity from those solar panels.
In this article, we will consider the costs of the production and manufacturing process against the benefits of the generation of electricity through solar so you can make an informed decision as you’re contemplating switching to renewable energy We will review the current information from U.S. government research agencies and scientific publications and examine how solar energy offers measurable and impactful environmental benefits.
Solar Energy Manufacturing
To produce solar energy, you need electronic components—such as solar cells, semiconductors, and wiring—to capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) has created an easy-to-understand, short (and interesting) video about this process.
The most common solar panels in use are photovoltaic (PV). These include small PV cell-based devices like calculators, watches, and other small electronic devices as well as cells grouped into PV panels—like those used to create the solar panel systems powering homes and businesses. A PV solar system includes PV modules (polysilicon wafers, cell fabrication, and module assembly), racking and wiring, power electronics, and system monitoring devices. Each of these components rely on materials which are mined, mass-produced, and chemically refined. These processes consume energy and water resources, produce pollution, and create waste during fabrication and transportation/shipping. However, manufacturers are working to make the production process more green and progress has already been made.
These costs create a resource (solar panels) which allow us to use the sun’s limitless energy for 30+ years.
Solar Energy Production
Once your solar system is installed, the panels create no active emissions or ongoing negative impacts to the environment. The energy produced by each solar system varies depending on a number of factors including how many panels are included, where the panels are located, how they’re positioned, how much sun they receive, the weather, and more. However, once the system is energized it can supplement or completely offset your home’s power needs for decades.
While extolling the benefits of solar energy, it’s important to note one of the common criticisms of solar panels is the space required to accommodate the system. However, this isn’t an issue when considering residential solar as these installations take advantage of available space on rooftops and avoid any additional change or modification of the landscape, making it a decision you can feel confident in.
Solar panels typically come with warranties lasting 25 years and expected lifespans of 30 years or more. Panels may last longer with slowly declining energy outputs (rates which may still be as high as 80 to 80% of their initial output when the panels age out of their warranty period).
With these long lifespans, solar panels offer a remarkable return on the environmental and financial costs, help save you money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, a Wood MacKenzie report confirms solar power will be the cheapest form of energy in the nation by 2030.
Solar Panel Environmental Impact
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) studies the environmental impact of the solar energy equipment manufacturing process compared to other forms of energy production, such as gas or coal burning.
The measurement used in the energy industry to calculate the emissions intensity over the lifespan of these energy resources (from manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and ultimate disposal) is called the total carbon emissions evaluated per unit of energy, or grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2/kWh). The carbon emissions of solar panels is about 40 grams CO2/kWh. Comparatively, the lifecycle carbon emissions for electricity produced by coal is about 1,000 grams CO2/kWh and natural gas is about 500 grams CO2/kWh.
As illustrated, solar panels produce far cleaner energy over the life of the custom solar system with less lasting impact on the environment than burning traditional fossil fuels for electricity production. Here is a look at the offset of solar systems installed by Blue Raven Solar over the years:
- 8,839,812,930 total kWh
- 6,264,621 tons of carbon
- 1,394,068 cars driven for one year
- 704,919,605 gallons of gas
- 14,489,652 barrels of oil
- 1,218,936 years’ worth of traditionally generated electricity for the average home
- 16 natural gas-fired power plants in one year
- 7,470,671 acres of U.S. forest in one year
According to this NREL report, the energy consumption required to manufacture solar panels can be “paid back” in about two years, depending on the type of PV panels.
The same report concludes:
An average U.S. household uses 830 kWh of electricity per month. On average, producing 1,000 kWh of electricity with solar power reduces emissions by nearly 8 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 5 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. During its projected 28 years of clean energy production, a rooftop system with a 2-year energy payback and meeting half of a household’s electricity use would avoid conventional electrical-plant emissions of more than half a ton of sulfur dioxide, one-third a ton of nitrogen oxides, and 100 tons of carbon dioxide. PV is clearly a wise energy investment that affords impressive environmental benefits.
These harmful pollutants impact the quality of life on Earth. Sulfur dioxide can harm trees and plants by damaging foliage and decreasing growth at high concentrations. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other sulfur oxides can contribute to acid rain which can harm sensitive ecosystems, and all of these compounds can cause a wide range of environmental concerns, including deteriorating water quality and decreasing atmospheric visibility. Reducing these emissions benefits us all.
Solar Energy Improvements
The U.S. government is heavily investing in the solar energy industry due to its promise as a clean, renewable energy source. Their goals include:
- Reducing costs: By 2030, the U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal to cut the cost of solar energy by more than half. To ease the initial cost of purchasing a solar energy system, the government is offering rebates and incentives.
- Improving the technology for greater efficiencies: Research into areas such as greater conversion efficiency is crucial to the continued adoption of solar and to making PV technologies cost-competitive with other sources of energy.
- Discovering novel manufacturing materials and processes: For example, a calcium titanium oxide mineral called perovskite is being studied could be more effective than silicon-based solar cells, and more changes and improvements are likely coming to solar panels and technology.
- Eliminating waste: The use of smart inverters to help reduce energy waste by ensuring the right amount of energy is produced and consumed at all times are active areas being considered.
- Encouraging recycling and reuse of old panels: Solar panels can be recycled through re-use, mechanical recycling, and chemical recycling. The U.S. government is sponsoring these through programs and incentives to encourage better recycling policies and efforts.
Renewable solar energy will continue to provide a better alternative to the current, predominant methods of conventional sources of energy production. Research studies, like this one, offer insight into these efforts and provide a glimpse into how solar energy will continue to evolve and minimize the negative impacts on the environment.
We Can All Make a Difference
The data around solar energy is consistent and supported by researchers and scientists: Individual homeowners who choose to install rooftop solar can have a measurable net positive impact on the environment. We can all make a small change which can make a big difference. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to lower demand on coal, oil, and natural gas power plant production has an immediate and lasting benefit for all of us.
As solar efficiencies make greater progress and new technologies become available, we will continue to benefit from the sun’s gift of light and energy—which has been reliably supplying our planet for billions of years and shows no signs of stopping.
Talk to our Blue Raven Solar experts to find out how you can make an impact on the environment by transitioning to renewable energy by installing a rooftop system.