Solar energy is one of the most rapidly expanding renewable energies being adopted in homes worldwide. That’s partly because the cost to install it has gone down so much over the past decade.
Converting to solar power at your home is a powerful way to reduce your carbon footprint. The average person in the United States produces 19.8 tons of carbon emissions per year. An average family of four produces between 60-80 tons of carbon per year by doing everyday things like driving, using utilities and buying groceries, according to the Nature Conservancy.
If that same household of four people converts to solar energy, they can offset their carbon footprint by an average of six tons.
One motivating factor for homeowners who install solar panels — besides lower electric bills — is often an environmental one. Solar energy is much more friendly to the environment than sources like fossil fuels or coal, but are there negative consequences?
Solar Panel Production Materials and Risks
Pollution, emissions and greenhouse gases aren’t an issue with solar power — except when the panels are being produced and distributed. Despite the very small carbon footprint once solar panels start producing energy for consumers, some environmental damage is done during the production stage.
It’s worse in some places than others. A study conducted by Northwestern University found that the carbon footprint for producing solar panels in China is twice as high as those produced in European countries. That’s partly because China puts less emphasis on efficiency and “green” standards at its manufacturing plants than its European counterparts, according to the study.
Sixty percent of solar energy is produced in Europe, so if panels are shipped from China to Western Europe, the footprint is even higher.
Many chemicals are used for solar panel production, including cadmium, hydrogen sulfide, lead and around a dozen others, so chemical spills can be a concern. These are all either hazardous or irritants if they come into contact with people.
During routine operation, though, photovoltaic cells don’t produce gas or liquid pollutants, or radioactive waste.
Physical Space of Solar Farms
Solar panels installed on roof tops have minimal impact on their landscapes, but photovoltaic power stations — often referred to as solar farms — take up a lot of square footage.
The space issue is also a problem once the panels have reached the end of their lifespan. Without a solid plan in place to recycle the solar panels, the remaining “junk” will take up a lot of space in landfills, much like other forms of technology like old cell phones, TVs and computers.
Solar panels have a lifespan of 25-30 years, so the first big wave of panels that need to be recycled will hit around 2030, according to a study by Penn State. Around 500,000 solar panels were installed globally every day in 2015. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that there will be 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. It’s possible to reuse a lot of the materials in the panels — $15 billion worth, according to IRENA.
Weighing the Good and the Bad
Like other renewable energy sources, solar energy produces a small carbon footprint and is an excellent source for environmentally-friendly energy.
The environmental impact of solar energy is very small compared to other energy sources, even when transportation, production, installation, water use and recycling issues is included. Most negatives associated with solar energy can be offset by strategic planning and high standards in the workplace and during production.
Bio: Elizabeth Anderson is a content writer at Kellyco Metal Detectors, the leading online retailer of metal detectors for beginners, professionals and everyone in between. Kellyco has been providing the best metal detectors and accessories for customers for over 60 years.
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