Solar panels glimmering in the sun are an icon of all that is green. But while generating electricity through photovoltaics is indeed better for the environment than burning fossil fuels, several incidents have linked the manufacture of these shining symbols of environmental virtue to a trail of chemical pollution. And it turns out that the time it takes to compensate for the energy used and the greenhouse gases emitted in photovoltaic panel production varies substantially by technology and geography.

Once installed, your solar power system should produce electrical power for a large number of years with practically no further inputs to damage its green credentials, bar perhaps the occasional use of water to clean the modules, maintaining their efficiency.

In addition to being renewable, solar energy is typically labelled a “green” source of energy due to the lack of harmful environmental side effects associated with its use. While fossil fuels release greenhouse gases and other particles into our atmosphere, generating energy from solar panels is a zero-emissions process that can take place anywhere the sun shines.

The Environmental Effects of Manufacturing Solar Panels

Many people are concerned with the environmental effects of manufacturing solar panels. Like any manufactured product, making quality solar modules takes resources and energy, which means that solar energy production has at least some environmental impact. It is of course very difficult to measure the overall energy input into the manufacturing process of solar power systems in general. The good news is that this impact is minimal in comparison to the benefits of the zero-emissions energy produced with solar panels. Studies have shown that it only takes a few months for a solar panel producing energy to “cancel out” the impact of manufacturing it.

The environmental effect of producing solar panels is decreasing year after year with the introduction of better panel technologies and designs. For example, solar panel efficiency is increasing dramatically every year. This means that solar panels are becoming much better at converting sunlight into emissions-free energy, and the relative environmental cost of producing panels compared to the clean energy they generate is shrinking rapidly.

What Happens to Solar Panels at the End of Their Life?

The last few years have seen the growing concern over what happens to solar panels at the end of their life. Perhaps the biggest problem with solar panel waste is that there is so much of it, and that’s not going to change any time soon, for a basic physical reason: sunlight is dilute and diffuse and thus require large collectors to capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. Those large surface areas, in turn, require an order of magnitude more in materials — whether today’s toxic combination of glass, heavy metals, and rare earth elements, or some new material in the future — than other energy sources.

Destroyed Solar Farm in Puerto Rico. Photo: Aerial photography

Hurricane Maria (Atlantic hurricane of 2017) caused massive damage and destruction in Puerto Rico, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis. Many people around the world have heard and read about the disaster in on the island, but few know much about the damage of the electricity plant of solar panels. The hurricane destroyed completely some of the island’s renewable energy projects, such as the solar park in Humacao. For the most part, the electricity grid was destroyed.

Solar panels can be recycled and the components within them repurposed, further lowering the overall environmental footprint of solar energy. Similar to panel efficiency improvements, panel recycling processes are continually getting better, further reducing the lifetime impact of solar energy.

Solar Panel Purchase Fee

One solution can be to set a fee on solar panel purchases to make sure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is internalized into the price of solar panels and not externalized onto future taxpayers. An obvious solution would be to impose a new fee on solar panels that would go into a decommissioning fund. The funds would then, in the future, be dispensed to state and local governments to pay for the removal and recycling or long-term storage of solar panel waste. The advantage of this fund overextended producer responsibility is that it would make sure that solar panels are safely decommissioned, recycled, or stored over the long-term.

Photo: Carl Attard

Picture on top: Unknown

Categories: Development, Technology, World


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Karl Skaar
Karl Skaar

Is a highly successful professional, with a high degree of entrepreneurial flair. Among the many different roles, he is the chief editor of the Lucubrate Magazine.

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