The Environmental Impact of Solar Energy: Is it Bad or Good?

The Environmental Impact of Solar Energy

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Solar energy is becoming the most rapidly growing renewable energies being used in homes around the world. That’s mainly because the cost to install the tech has gone down so much over the last few years.

Converting your home to solar power is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. The average person in the US produces 19.8 tons of carbon emissions every year. And an average family of 4 produces between 60-80 tons of carbon per year just by doing their everyday things like using utilities, driving, and buying groceries, according to the Nature Conservancy.

If that same household of four converted to solar energy, they can offset their carbon footprint by six tons on average.

One factor motivating homeowners to install solar panels — besides lower electricity bills — is an environmental one. Solar energy is more friendly to the environment than other energy sources like fossil fuels and coal, but are there negative consequences?

Solar Panel Production Materials and Risks

Modern wind turbines Green Energy and Power transmission tower

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.

Related Article: How to Buy an Eco-Friendly Home

Physical Space of Solar Farms

Solar farm/field

Solar panels installed on rooftops 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

two engineers handshaking before large solar power station

Like other renewable energy sources, solar energy produces a small carbon footprint and is an excellent source of 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 are 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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