Solar energy has been praised as a renewable source of energy, harmless to the environment. It helps to harness free energy from the sun to power human lives in sustainable ways.
Solar panels are gaining ground with most people shifting to this energy source to reduce their electricity bills and reliance on fossil fuels. But have you ever wondered how solar panels are made? There is a direct relationship between solar panels and fossil fuels.
Is coal used to make solar panels? PVC production requires coal, also an element used to produce solar panels (Source). Coal is used in producing solar panels and as a raw material to make the chemicals used in manufacturing. Manufacturing a photovoltaic (PV) solar cell requires energy, often from burning fossil fuels (Source: Scientific American)
In this article, we explain:
- The fuel used in making solar panels;
- What are solar panels’ environmental impact;
- To what extent do solar panels cause pollution?
You may be shocked by how much coal is burned to produce one solar panel. Continue reading to learn more.
Is Coal Used to Make Solar Panels?
Although solar panels do not release greenhouse gasses into the environment, the process of making them does. Solar panels are made using coal as a primary material, which means that solar energy may not be as clean as you thought!
What is the material used to make solar panels? The most common material used to produce solar panels is silicon, representing about 95% of the modules sold nowadays. (Source: U.S Office of Energy Efficiency And Renewable Energy)
The good news is that silicon is also the second most abundant material on Earth (after oxygen) and the most common semiconductor in computer chips.
Currently, homeowners and factories implementing solar energy systems are considered environment champions and sometimes rewarded with tax credits or rebates.
How Much Coal Is Needed To Produce a Solar Panel?
Solar panels require energy to produce; most manufacturers use coal as a source of energy because it is cheap. An average residential solar system produces about 7200 kWh annually; this needs approximately 1 ton of coal.
There is a direct link between the amount of coal used in the production process and the solar panel’s efficiency. As the demand for solar energy rises, manufacturers increase the quantity and efficiency of solar panels to meet these demands.
In the past few years, solar panels’ efficiency has increased by over 100%, with more improvements projected in the coming years.
Many people are shifting from over-reliance on the grid system to alternative energy sources. The cost of electricity has gone up, and solar energy seems to be the best bet for reducing that cost.
The present solar panels require so much coal to enhance their efficiency to produce the needed energy yearly. As the demand for solar panels increases, manufacturers are looking for ways to improve their performance. Increasing solar panels’ efficiency requires more coal!
Assuming it takes 200kWh worth of energy to make one 100-watt solar panel, you will need 200 pounds worth of coal. Solar panels with higher efficiency will require burning more coal to produce.
How Much Energy Do You Need To Produce One Solar Panel?
The answer varies from one solar panel to another. A solar panel with more watts and efficiency requires more energy to produce than low-watt and efficiency solar panels.
The answer to this question is also likely to change with technological advancement, which enhances solar panels’ manufacturing process. Some skeptics of green energy have argued that manufacturing solar panels take more energy than they generate.
However, this fear is not founded, and here is why:
We can debunk this theory with the example of 200kWh used in producing a 100-watts solar panel.
One hundred watts x 5 hours of direct sunlight on the solar panel daily = 1000 watts every day. In one year, you will generate (1000 x 365) = 365kWh of energy annually.
Now, most solar panels have a lifespan of 25 years, which means they will generate 9,125kWh of energy before the warranty expires.
What Is The Return On Investment On Solar Panels?
Assuming it costs $0.15 for every kWh of energy, we arrive at the following calculations:
$0.15 x 200kWh = $30, meaning it costs approximately $30 to make one 100-watts solar panel.
Now, $0.15 x 365 days= is $54.75 generated annual energy, but since solar has a lifespan of 25 years, the total energy production per lifecycle is 25x 54.75 = 1,368.75. If you install 20 panels, you will produce energy worth $27,375 over 25 years.
Therefore, with an investment of $20 in energy from a 100-watt solar panel, the return is $1,368.75 – $20 =1348.75 per year. Investing in solar energy results in a huge saving in energy costs.
Other benefits of installing solar panels include raising the value of your property by 4.1 % higher, according to recent solar energy research conducted by Zillow.
What Is The Carbon Footprint Of Producing Solar Panels?
Solar panels are mainly categorized into two: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. These solar panels have different carbon footprints.
- Monocrystalline have distinct black color cells associated with their sleek shiny look. The manufacturing process entails molding huge silicon blocks, sliced into small thin wafers, and fixed to make a solar panel.
- Polycrystalline solar cells also come from silicon but with a different manufacturing process. Their cells are created by melting silicon crystals, a process that needs a lot of energy.
Therefore, when considering solar panels’ carbon footprint, we are looking into the emissions during the process.
If you are interested in exploring more about the Differences Between Monocrystalline And Polycrystalline, I wrote an article that I encourage you to read.
The Carbon Footprint For Solar Energy
During the first years of the solar energy system, you will likely produce approximately 50g of carbon dioxide per kWh. Fortunately, the resulting carbon footprint is 20 times less than the contribution of coal-powered electricity sources.
Although making solar panels contributes to pollution, your carbon footprint will reduce significantly after installation.
You could become carbon neutral after three years of running a solar power system. Carbon neutral is where you clear your carbon debt, enabling the solar panel system to remain carbon neutral for the rest of the warranty period.
So, using coal to make efficient solar panels is a scary idea, but manufacturers reason that the panels will, in the long run, pay off the carbon debt generated during production.
The Chinese power stations have come under fire lately for producing coal-powered solar panels. During the manufacturing process, solar panels consume a huge amount of energy to purify silicon, and these companies rely on coal to cheaply generate that energy.
A study issued by Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory discovered that the carbon footprint of a panel from China is double of European because China has more coal-fired power plants and fewer environmental standards.
Some people also argue that even if you use wind or nuclear power as an energy source when making solar panels, these sources also have hidden carbon footprints.
For instance, building wind and nuclear power stations require lots of steel and concrete. Steel and concrete manufacturing emits lots of greenhouse gases into the air. Furthermore, the centrifuges used to separate nuclear fuel consume much electricity.
Can Solar Panels Be Made Without Coal?
Solar panels can be made without coal, but producing a silicon-based solar cell requires significant energy. Solar panels’ photovoltaic cells are mainly made from silicon. This ingredient requires a lot of energy to purify, hence using coal. The reliance on coal contributes to large carbon footprints for solar panels.
You can source energy from other clean sources to manufacture solar panels, but you will use a significant amount of energy.
Researchers continue to explore alternative sources of energy to produce solar cells. These studies aim to find sources with less carbon footprint.
One option that manufacturers have explored is the thin-film solar cells. They are produced using copper indium selenide or cadmium telluride. Although these cells require less energy to produce than silicon cells, they are not as efficient as silicon-based solar cells in generating electricity.
Solar Panels And Pollution
Many solar panels across the globe are manufactured using the Chinese-based PVC. These companies produce solar panels with coal as a component and energy source (Source: National Geographic)
So, the PVC cells that should help us reduce reliance on fossil fuels are adding to the pollution problem.
Additionally, malfunctioned or damaged photovoltaic arrays are often poorly disposed of, thus affecting the environment with their lead and other heavy metals.
Solar energy can reduce reliance on fossil fuels and pollution if manufactured using safer materials that can be recycled when their useful life ends.
Technological advancements and research make it possible to increase the efficiency of PV cells without using coal or harmful materials. Installing coal-free solar panels will protect our environment and the future of humanity.
Why Do We Burn Trees And Coal To Make Solar Panels?
You cannot find a single atom of silicon in the universe. They are extracted from quartz through smelting, which uses heat and carbon.
One ton of silicon smelting power consumes around 20 megawatt hours of electricity, resulting in 5-6 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission.
Solar panel manufacturers collect, transport, and burn coke, coal, petroleum coke, and wood chips from hardwood trees to purify silicon during the initial stage of PV cell manufacture.
It takes even more fossil fuels to create wafers, ingots, polysilicon, cells, and module that can create electricity.
Manufacturing solar panels require a lot of energy to purify silicon from quartz. Most manufacturers burn coal to generate this energy, thus contributing to pollution. Solar energy is considered a clean energy source; however, producing solar panels is far from clean.
Nevertheless, in the long run, solar panels pay the carbon debt created during the production stage. So, you can install solar panels to reduce your carbon footprint and the cost of electricity.