Creating the solar panel.

What’s The Environmental Impact Of Solar Energy?


With solar energy becoming a more popular option for homeowners around the country, many have begun to wonder about the environmental impact of going solar. Though it is undoubtedly an eco-friendlier power option than burning fossil fuels, some worry that the construction of solar panels still contributes to emissions and that this clean energy source isn’t as ‘clean’ as it’s made out to be.

Are their objections legitimate, and is the transition to solar energy worth the effort? Let’s check out the real impact of solar panels on the environment.

How Does Solar Energy Impact The Environment?

Solar panels are made up of cells, sometimes referred to as photovoltaic (PV) cells or just ‘solar cells.’ These cells absorb sunlight and transform it into an electric current. While operating, your home solar panels won’t use water or consume any fossil fuels to complete this process – the sun and the silicon in your panels’ cells will take care of creating energy on their own. In terms of the energy creation process, solar panels contribute less carbon to the atmosphere when compared to other methods of powering your home.

Solar energy isn’t without its potential downsides, however. There are some problems with solar power that we as a society will need to find solutions for before solar power can be considered a truly green and eco-friendly process.

Environmental Impact Of Solar Panel Manufacturing

While the process of creating energy via solar panels is fully clean and eco-friendly, the manufacturing process is not. To create the panels themselves, materials like quartz must be mined and processed. This processing is very energy-intensive and involves hazardous chemicals like sulfuric acid, nitric acid and acetone as well. Fossil fuels are used to transport materials and finished panels to their final destinations.

While the creation of solar panels can be harmful and contributes to emissions, once they’re built, solar panels have a typical life cycle of around 30 years. That’s 30 years of clean, emission-free renewable energy.

Solar Panel Disposal And Recycling

When solar panels reach the end of their lifespan, we encounter another environmental concern: getting rid of the old panels. Solar panels are made of mostly recyclable materials – around 70% of the panels can be reused. The 30% that cannot, however, can pose a threat to the environment if not disposed of properly. Panels might contain materials like gallium arsenide and cadmium-telluride that need to be disposed of or reused very carefully to prevent leaching and other environmental damage.

Leaving old solar panels in landfills would be not only toxic to the environment but also wasteful, considering the costly and often rare materials needed to make the solar cells. Unfortunately, there is no ‘good’ widely used recycling system in place for solar panels as of yet. Recycling panels is expensive because there is a lot of time and effort required to do so.

With more panels around now than ever before, the issue of what to do with all the existing solar panels when they reach the end of their useful lives is a pressing one that has yet to be solved at scale.

Solar Farms And Land Use

Another concern many have about solar energy, particularly solar farms, is the amount of real estate they can take up. This is a particularly relevant issue in rural areas. Solar farms can take up a large amount of land, which can become a problem for the local ecosystem for a few reasons – first, a huge space filled with concrete and panels disrupts existing wildlife habitats. This poses a biodiversity issue if some species of wild animals are uprooted from their homes.

Solar farms may also cause erosion by depleting the land of its vegetation – although this is less of an issue as it can be combatted with proper management and planning. Many of the issues with solar farms disrupting the nature around them have solutions in the works in many states. For example, many solar farms are now planting pollinator-friendly foliage among their panels. Some states have even implemented ‘pollinator-friendly solar scorecards’ to help farms ensure they’re keeping some form of habitat for wildlife and local flora to thrive within the solar farm systems.

Other Points About The Environmental Effects Of Solar Energy

  • Solar panels can also be placed on spaces like parking garages and other buildings with large roofs. By using land that has already been ‘touched’ by humans, it’s possible to reduce the amount of land needed for solar farms.
  • Solar power is an extremely cheap source of power for utility companies to produce. Once the panels have been built, there are few ongoing costs besides maintenance and upkeep to continue producing electricity with solar panels. No extra energy needs to be expended to keep producing power after the panels are initially built and installed.
  • Solar panels aren’t a source of air pollution or carbon dioxide once operational. Though assembling panels may consume energy and fossil fuels, panels can produce clean energy for years once created.
  • Solar panels are improving in efficiency. New solar panels are far more efficient than the first generations on the market. You can create more energy with fewer panels than ever before.

The Bottom Line: Solar Panels Offer Environmental Improvements

There is no perfect solution to powering our planet without increasing our carbon footprint (yet). All forms of energy have their pros and cons. Solar power may have some downsides, but it’s also a great way to make significant progress toward combating climate change, since it consumes and produces less waste and harmful emissions than other power sources like natural gas, coal and other fuels.

Better systems for recycling panels and keeping solar farms biodiverse as time goes on will help tip the scales in favor of solar power going forward. Solar isn’t the perfect solution for clean energy just yet, but it is certainly on its way there and is creating positive change in the meantime as an alternative to fossil fuels.

If you’re ready to potentially save money on utility bills while also reducing your carbon footprint, connect with a Rocket SolarSM advisor today.

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