Many households are increasingly adopting solar systems as a source of energy for their home or businesses. Environmentalists pushing for solar systems argue that it is a clean, renewable energy source and could significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
When you ask random people in the streets to name clean energy sources, solar energy will be a constant feature in their answers.
This could be true to an extent because solar energy does not require burning fossil fuels characterized by the emission of tones of greenhouse gases.
However, when discussing solar panels and their contribution to the environment, the question remains: are solar panels environmentally friendly?
Solar energy technologies, including solar panels and power plants, do not create air pollution or greenhouse gases. However, solar panels might also create new environmental hazards because of the elements used to make and use them (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
Do you know how solar panels are made? Does its manufacturing process release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? How much water is wasted during the production process?
This article dives deep into solar systems production to establish if the theory of environmental friendliness is true.
What Are Solar Panels Made Of?
Solar panels are made of solar cells (or photovoltaic cells), including silicon semiconductors absorbing sunlight and creating an electric current. Manufacturing a solar panel takes a long process that begins with quartz. What is quartz? It is a common mineral, often found underground. It is formed when oxygen combines with silicon atoms, and researchers established that pure silicon can be extracted from it.
Pure silicon is used when manufacturing solar panels as semiconductors to generate electricity. Therefore, solar panel manufacturers mine quartz for the silicon, a raw material in making solar panels.
The mining stage has serious environmental and health issues. For instance, miners of quartz are exposed to silicosis- a lung disease due to tiny bits of silica inhaled from the ore.
Solar industry experts have realized these issues and are now pushing for a gradual shift from quartz mining to quartz-rich sand. Quartz-rich sand is refined through the same process to produce pure silicon for manufacturing solar panels.
Health-conscious solar panel companies are relying on the sand to produce solar. The process shields workers from the risk of silicosis since they do not need to mine ores for silicon.
I suggest you watch the video below for more details on how solar panels are made.
The Environmental Challenges Of Producing Solar Panels
The environment is not off the hook, even with quartz-rich sand. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the production of solar panels still impacts the environment if the manufacturers do not handle the by-products well.
For instance, the quartz-rich sand is first converted into polysilicon to convert metallurgical-grade silicon to a usable panel. Polysilicon is created through a chemical reaction that releases silicon tetrachloride as a by-product.
Some solar panel manufacturers do not handle silicon tetrachloride safely. This chemical compound ends up in a landfill, causing soil acidification and spews harmful gases into the air.
However, through research and advanced technology, scientists have found a way of recycling silicon tetrachloride to make polysilicon and reuse it to produce more solar panels.
Researchers continue to explore ways to make manufacturing solar panels more sustainable.
In China, where many solar panels are made- the government has set rules for manufacturers to reuse 98.5% of their silicon tetrachloride waste.
Even new researchers in the US are looking for ways to manufacture solar panels that eliminate silicon tetrachloride. Solar panels will become more sustainable and environmentally friendly if this can be achieved.
Another challenge is that after the purification of polysilicon, it is often made into bricks which are then sliced into thin wafers to make solar panels. However, this process requires hydrofluoric acid and other chemicals to texturize and lean the panel.
Although these chemicals enhance light intake, they can hurt the environment if they are not properly disposed of.
What Is The Alternative?
Researchers explore the possibility of replacing hydrofluoric acid with sodium hydroxide. Since cadmium negatively impacts animals, plants, and micro-organisms, environment-conscious manufacturers use zinc sulfide.
Regulators and researchers are working day and night to replace the chemical-based manufacture of solar panels with safer alternatives.
Several other alternatives exist to benefit from solar without installing solar panels in your home. Some popular options include community solar, heat pumps, ground-mounted solar panels, solar shingles, and solar sheds or carports.
Solar Panels’ Contribution To Carbon Footprint?
We will examine solar panels’ processes from the manufacture, installation, and maintenance to establish their full contribution to environmental pollution.
1- The Manufacturing Processes
Although electricity from solar panels contributes to no emissions or fossil fuels, it takes lots of energy to manufacture solar panels. Fortunately, they have positive net energy, meaning they produce more power than what is used to make them.
Manufacturers are interested in net energy to help them improve the power imbalance. Researchers even developed an Energy Payback Time metric to determine how long it takes for a solar panel to produce energy equivalent to what is consumed during manufacturing.
Some experts estimate that multi-crystalline solar panels take 4 years to attain EPBT. But since solar panels have a life span of between 20 and 30 years, one solar panel can produce 5 times the energy used to make it.
With new technology arriving yearly, the EPBT is reducing even further.
2- Solar Panels Maintenance
Solar panels require a huge amount of water to maintain. Data from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) indicate that you will need a round 20 gallons per megawatt-hour of electricity to wash and clean the solar panels.
Nevertheless, this is little compared to the amount of water you need to generate electricity through coal processing. Coal relies on steam to generate electricity and would use more water than solar.
Do Solar Panels Use Fossil Fuels?
In the past, some solar companies burned coal to generate energy to extract pure silicon from quartz. Burning coal or natural gas contributes to pollution, with many greenhouse gases emitted into the air. Nevertheless, solar panels can cancel your carbon debt after a few years.
Fortunately, current manufacturers, including Biosolar, use other clean energy sources such as nuclear power, wind-generated power, and solar energy to extract pure silicon.
The shift to other clean energy sources in manufacturing solar panels improves the credibility of solar panels as a source of environmentally friendly energy.
Solar Panels And Wildlife
Since the introduction of solar technology, various government and environmental groups have addressed the impact of solar systems on plants and animal life. They have found that the solar industry improves wildlife conditions; however, new solar projects have recently been in the spotlight.
Several solar panel farms conduct surveys to ensure that the plant does not interfere with wildlife before they can embark on building it.
Some states even have a Desert Renewable Conservation Plan that protects wildlife habitats during the planning process.
Unlike electricity from fossil fuels, solar panels maximize the production of electricity while minimizing carbon emissions. Less carbon emission means more wildlife protection.
Although building solar farms causes temporary displacement of local bird species, the resulting clean energy is essential for our planet’s future.
Why Solar Energy Is One Of The Cleanest And Most Environmentally Friendly Energy Sources?
We have seen that manufacturing solar panels can cause pollution if the by-product chemicals are not properly disposed of. Some solar panel companies in China have been accused of dumping harmful chemicals into the nearby river.
However, most solar panel manufacturing companies, especially in Europe, are using modern technology to reduce the number of toxic by-products. These actions have enhanced the environmental benefits of solar panels as follows:
1- Solar Panels Replace Toxic Fossil Fuel Plants
Although much energy is needed to produce silicon solar panels, they still stand out as environmentally friendly solutions.
Fossil fuel power plants burn natural gas, coal, or petroleum, releasing harmful pollutants such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and sulfur oxides.
These chemicals are ruthless towards the environment, hastening global warming and climate change. On the other hand, solar energy does not create these pollution problems, contributing to a cleaner planet.
2- Solar Energy Is Renewable
Since the sun will always be here, you can bet that solar energy is infinite. Solar energy does not have the risk of depletion, making it an eco-friendly energy source.
The sun is a clean, abundant (depending on where you live), accessible, and consistent source of power that has been delivering energy Worldwide for billions of years, making solar energy a renewable energy source.
3- Solar Energy Is Cost-Efficient
Advancements in technology have facilitated the production of solar panels, making them cheaper.
You can produce more electricity during the summer, enough for your daily home use. You could even sell it to the grid if you produce excess electricity.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it is cheaper to install new solar panels than a similar investment in natural gas, coal, or other fossil fuel options.
4- Low Maintenance
Solar panels require little maintenance once they are installed. You will only brush the dust or leaves accumulating on the panels occasionally.
They also last longer, with inverters requiring replacements after 10-15 years.
Are Solar Panels Ideal For You?
If you want to make environmentally conscious decisions about your power consumption, installing solar panels is an excellent idea. Solar energy is by far the most environmentally friendly energy source.
Solar panels do not emit greenhouse gases when generating electricity, contributing to clean air. You will also save on your electricity bill since the sun is free. So, solar energy is a good investment for anyone who wants to protect the planet and save money.