The Good & The Bad Effects of Solar Power on the Environment
Solar power has long been touted as one of the best sources of clean and green energy, and with good reason. Compared to electricity generation coming from the burning of fossil fuels that releases greenhouse gases, solar panels convert sunlight into electricity without ejecting global-warming emissions into the atmosphere. That makes solar energy the poster child of renewable energy.
Aside from saving the environment, the fact that solar panels also help homeowners cut back on their utility expenses is a welcome bonus. But does solar energy fully live up to its reputation as an earth-friendly power supplier?
From a power generation standpoint, we can say that, yes, solar energy systems don’t impact Mother Nature. However, other facets of this renewable source have their share of adverse effects on the planet. Knowing these effects can help us determine if using solar power as an alternative to fossil fuel-based electricity is a wise move.
When it comes to negative environmental impacts, utility-scale projects or solar farms contribute a greater share compared to solar rooftop systems. Due to the size of large-scale solar systems, the facilities required disrupt the ecosystem, sometimes to the point where returning to the pre-disturbed state is next to impossible.
Luckily for residential users, small-scale solar panel systems have lesser detrimental effects on nature.
Land Use Management
Constructing the infrastructure needed for utility-scale solar energy generation involves clearing and grading large tracts of land. How the activities affect the surrounding environment, whether for better or worse, depends on the type of solar technology used and on the management of the project.
Large-scale photovoltaic (PV) solar systems typically require 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt, while concentrating solar thermal plant (CSP) facilities usually need between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt.
Converting large areas for solar energy use can lead to soil compaction and erosion, as well as blockage or alteration of drainage channels resulting in general land degradation. Add to that, solar facilities can encroach on productive agricultural land, which can affect food production.
On the upside, using barren or unused lands to set up solar farms of CSP facilities puts idle areas to good use while contributing to the renewable energy reserves of the country. Thus, utilizing lower-quality locations, such as abandoned mining lands and brownfields, will mitigate solar energy’s negative effect on land use.
Another way to lessen the negative environmental impacts of solar is by integrating the solar energy facilities into grazing meadows and croplands to avoid disruption and impact on land use.
Loss of natural habitat is another concern associated with solar. Without proper planning that considers the surrounding area, utility-scale solar energy development and operation can negatively affect wildlife. That’s because land conversion for utility-scale solar energy development and operation can lead to habitat loss.
Solar panels and other equipment don’t grow out of thin air. The solar panel manufacturing process involves sourcing out materials, which usually includes the consumption of natural resources. To access those resources means disrupting the existing ecosystem.
On top of that, building solar facilities in forested land decimates the number of trees. It removes vegetation, leading to the loss of the natural habitat of various species, both plants and animals. This puts those species at risk, even causing extinction when it comes to endangered wildlife.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Creating a plan that doesn’t disregard the environment’s wellbeing and executing that plan accordingly can bring more than the expected goals.
For example, maintaining the existing vegetation and introducing new plant varieties not only allow the wildlife in the area to keep their home but also help boost the facilities’ energy production by making the microclimate cooler. In that way, the increases in efficiency solar panels exhibit in cool, sunny environments might yield higher outputs.
Moreover, solar panels can increase the biodiversity in the area. Studies show that solar power installations can actually add to the number of thriving plant species by serving as havens in harsh environments like the desert.
Building on land that humans have already stripped of natural resources is an excellent means to reduce the environmental impacts of solar farms and other installations.
The dramatic growth of solar technology can also create issues in the area’s water supply if the planning and execution of the solar projects didn’t take into account the facilities’ effect on the region’s water resources.
PV arrays don’t need water to convert sunlight into electricity. However, in producing the equipment and components, the solar manufacturing process uses water. Solar facilities also require water, which can impact the supply in the installation areas, especially for large-scale facilities.
Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP), for example, have cooling towers that use up between 600-650 gallons of water in generating one megawatt-hour of electricity. The volume goes up depending on the cooling system used. Keeping the equipment, such as concentrators and receivers clean, also involves using a relatively large amount of the precious liquid.
Unfortunately, extensive water use puts further strain on the already limited supply when it occurs in arid areas. Moreover, depleting the ground or surface water can impact the ecosystem that depends on the water resources.
Excessive consumption is not the only problem. The risk of polluting or contaminating the groundwater also exists. Spills sometimes occur and, if not properly managed, the toxic chemicals can get into the area’s water sources.
To minimize the environmental impacts of solar when it comes to water use, improving the existing technology and developing new ones must be given priority. Focusing on solar technologies that use water more efficiently can likewise help prevent further drains on the world’s limited water resources.
Like with the problem with habitat loss, correct planning and implementation are the keys to limiting the adverse influences of solar use.
Materials Used in Solar Panels
Solar panels are made of photovoltaic or solar cells, ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), glass sheets, wires, and metal frames. When it comes to solar cells, silicon is the most commonly used material.
Although solar is earth-friendly, some of the materials used in the manufacturing process are not. Solar cells have cadmium and lead, which can harm the environment if they are carelessly thrown into landfills.
Compared to standard PV modules, thin-film solar panels contain more extensive mixes of hazardous chemicals that pose risks to nature and human health if the toxic components get to the air, water, and soil. The dangerous components include gallium, indium, selenium, arsenic, cadmium, and telluride.
Meanwhile, silicon particles that go into the atmosphere during the production stage of the PV modules can cause silicosis to exposed individuals. Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust.
Add to the dangerous components used in the solar panels themselves, cleaning and purifying the semiconductor surface of the modules also involve the use of hazardous chemicals. These include sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and acetone.
The toxic substances in solar panels usually pose no threat while the modules are on the roof. Instead, the greater risks occur during the solar panel manufacturing process and when the solar panels have reached the end of their life. If not handled correctly during these periods, the hazardous materials can hurt the planet.
Responsible solar panel manufacturers do try to reduce the environmental impacts of solar waste and byproducts. Unfortunately, instances of companies dumping the chemicals in nature occur, detracting from the benefits that solar brings.
To minimize the risks posed by toxic substances, proper disposal is a must.
Disposing, or Recycling of Solar Panels
Because of the boom in solar, the total weight of all solar panels in use all over the country is over 44 million tons. As such, the solar industry must address the issue of what to do with modules that will be coming to the end of their life a couple of decades from now and those that have stopped working due to defects or damages.
For now, solar panel disposal is not yet an issue since the industry only took off in the past 10 years or so. But the need for a recycling program will increase over time as the solar panels installed during the early days of the technology will soon be at the end of their life span.
Many experts propose mandatory recycling, and the reasons are clear. If the solar panels are not properly disposed of, the heavy metals in the modules, such as cadmium and lead, can leach out and harm humans and the environment.
Another reason for recycling solar panels is to help Mother Nature conserve the rare elements used in solar cells. Such elements like gallium and indium are limited resources, which will be used up over time.
Recovering those elements through recycling will extend the dwindling reserves we still have for future use. And it also has a financial perspective. According to studies conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), around $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels by 2050.
A recycling program will provide materials to create billions of new panels from raw materials coming from old solar panels.
Until recent years, PV modules that don’t end up in landfills usually go to general-purpose glass recycling facilities. The metal and glass components are recovered, while the rest are either disposed of or burned.
Today, some organizations are making an effort to reuse all the other components that go into solar panels, not just the metal and glass parts.
Is solar energy environmental impact free?
Unfortunately, solar energy is not as benign as we think when it comes to its effects on the environment. The manufacturing process, the construction of the facilities, and the disposal of solar panels and other equipment are behind the environmental impacts of solar. Still, we have to look at the benefits it provides vis-a-vis the harm it causes. Even considering the adverse consequences of solar power, the harmful emissions that solar energy prevents from getting into the atmosphere make it highly beneficial to Mother Nature.
Are solar farms the future?
The plummeting cost of solar panels and other equipment makes solar power an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. As a result, more and more solar farms go online, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as Alaska. This just shows how far the use of solar energy has gone.
The threat of climate change shows no signs of abating. The same holds with the spikes in electricity prices. Thus, transitioning to clean, renewable energy is the logical move. With a little fine-tuning, solar farms can be the foremost electricity supplier of the future.
What is the lifespan of a solar panel?
Based on industry standards, solar panels last between 25-30 years. But this doesn’t mean that the PV arrays on your roof will suddenly cease generating electricity in their 25th year. Instead, their power output may decrease to the point below what’s guaranteed by the solar panel manufacturers. Solar panels degrade over time, which means they produce less and less electricity as they age.
How profitable are solar farms?
Solar farms are profitable, and everyone, from the solar developers, landowners, and ordinary citizens, can benefit from the cash windfall. Thanks mainly to the robust growth of the solar industry, solar farms are sprouting all across the nation. This means the money in the pocket for landowners where the solar farms will be set up. Rates for solar leases alone fall in the range of $250 to $3,000 per acre annually. Meanwhile, the solar developers see huge profits, somewhere between $21,250 and $42,500 per acre of land.
And the benefits for ordinary people like you and me? More job opportunities driven by the massive deployment of solar can lead to a better life. Don’t forget the savings we’ll get on our power bills when we turn to solar power instead of using grid-generated electricity.
The climate crisis is upon us, and it seems there’s no way of turning it back. For now, we can only hope to slow it down. One way to do so is by transitioning to clean, renewable energy.
Solar power may not be as green as we want it to be, but it’s still cleaner than even natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel. It’s also one of the most accessible renewable energy sources. While it’s true that technology has its flaws, we need to weigh whether those flaws outweigh the advantages it brings to the environment.
By the looks of it, the solar industry will continue expanding, perhaps even more explosively, in the coming years. Thus, the need to recycle solar panels becomes more urgent. Otherwise, PV modules that have outlived their usefulness might soon swamp our landfills. Having an efficient solar panel recycling program is one more way to make solar the best renewable energy source we can turn to in our fight against global warming.