solar and the environment

Do You Know How Solar Panel Construction Affects the Environment?

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have a lot of potential to provide sustainable, green energy. But nothing is perfect in this world, and it has to be said that there are also a number of potential negative impacts on the environment stemming from the manufacturing processes and disposal of old photovoltaics.

The actual operation of PV systems during their lifetime generates an extremely minimal amount of pollution, which means that if we want to understand any potential effects on the environment, we need to look at photovoltaic cells from manufacturing until disposal.

What are the Potential Concerns?

While there’s no denying the green benefits of solar energy, it would be naïve to say that PV systems are perfect in their current state. It’s important to understand the potential environmental impacts of manufacturing, distributing, and disposing of solar cells so we can consistently improve these systems and solar components to be even more efficient in the future.

Currently, the largest concerns revolve around:

  • Hazardous materials – The production of solar cells typically involves the use of certain dangerous chemicals (mostly to clean and purify the semiconductor surface). Some regions have some strict regulations to ensure they’re disposed of properly, but others don’t.
  • Energy costs – There are a lot of upfront energy costs to produce a modern PV cell. This means that a lot of pollution may be created as we build systems that are meant to minimize pollution. So, the question is: will PV systems create more clean energy than it cost to make them.
  • Land usage – Solar facilities take up a lot of space, and there are concerns that this could lead to land degradation and habitat loss. However, this can be mitigated by locating the solar farms in lower-quality locations.
  • Water usage – Water is used in the manufacturing process and as a coolant in some solar thermal plants. In some cases, large amounts of ground or surface water may be needed to clean the collectors, which may affect the local ecosystems (especially since solar collectors are usually located in naturally dry and arid areas).
  • Recycling potential – There has been a boom in solar technology in the last couple decades, which means we’re looking at a boom of solar panels that are on the verge of being decommissioned. What is going to happen to them all? E-waste disposal methods will become very important in the near future.

The Future Holds a Lot of Potential

Recent research into the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission from different PV systems showed that these negative environmental impacts could be significantly mitigated with a careful and deliberate approach.

By developing new materials, minimizing the use of hazardous chemicals, choosing the right locations, and recycling materials whenever possible, we can decrease the amount of solid waste going into the environment, reduce the amount of GHG in the air, and preserve important water sources.

As it is, the carbon footprint emission from PV systems is around 14–73 g CO2-eq/kWh. This number is somewhere between 10 to 53 orders of magnitude lower than emission reported from burning oil, which is 742 g CO2-eq/kWh.

So, yes, there are some concerns with the environmental impact of manufacturing solar cells, but studies like these show the sheer potential for cleaner energy is worth pursuing.

The Solution Going Forward

Research has concluded that while there is a large energy investment upfront in the creation of PV systems, this investment quickly pays itself off. Still, there is always room for improvement, and as the industry focuses more on recycling solar cell materials, it could potentially lead to another 42% reduction in GHG emissions.

Solar power is an effective way to harvest and use green energy, and as we continue to develop new components, technologies, and recycling methods going forward, we can counter many of the current concerns and improve its sustainability, economic value, and overall environmental impact.