The United States has used fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas to generate electricity since the 1880s, powering its industrialization and global reach.
Industrialization has boosted the economy, revolutionized travel, and brought us to where we are today. However, burning fossil fuels has spurred an environmental impact as well as an economic one. These environmental effects suggest it’s time to consider the next breakthrough for electricity.
Solar energy stands as the most affordable and available on a home-to-home basis, helping the environment by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels; lowering carbon emissions in both the manufacturing and energy generation processes; minimizing air pollution, water usage, and wildlife disruption; and relying on a renewable source of energy. Understanding how solar impacts the environment helps identify the energy future of our society, how solar power factors into the overall global energy system, and how we can each make a difference through smart decisions.
The Carbon Emissions of Solar Panels
While the U.S. and other countries continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, production processes contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether they’re for green alternatives or not.
For solar panels, this begins with the materials used. Solar panel fabrication consists of key materials and precious metals, including:
Each must be mined and refined, which results in its own carbon emissions. From there, manufacturing a solar panel generates additional carbon dioxide (CO2). Afterward, panels must be transported—typically overseas on large shipping vessels or from factories, using gasoline and diesel.
With this in mind, you might wonder whether solar panels help the environment in the long run. If solar technology still has a carbon footprint, how can we call it a green energy solution?
The Carbon Offset Game
There are many ways to help our environment. Conservation actions may clean up the environment, projects like carbon capture may remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and some solutions like solar panels help the environment through carbon offsetting.
Solar panels do not remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; rather, they reduce our need to continue burning fossil fuels which create CO2. Although we still use machinery reliant on fossil fuels to build solar panels, these panels go on to generate zero carbon emissions once they’re installed.
All other types of energy generation likewise require manufacturing, extraction, and transportation. Solar panels average 50g of CO2 emissions or 0.11lbs per million British thermal units (MMBtu) per kilowatt hour. Here are the numbers behind traditional fossil fuels used for energy:
- Natural gas produces 117 lbs of CO2 per MMBtu during extraction and production
- Oil (petroleum) produces 160 lbs of CO2 per MMBtu
- Coal mining produces 200 lbs of CO2 per MMBtu
Once transported, these fuels are burned to generate needed electricity, creating further carbon emissions. In contrast, solar panel products like residential solar systems or parking lot lighting arrays do not create more CO2 over the course of their lifespan as they generate energy for decades to come.
This is where carbon offsetting changes the dynamics of how solar panels impact our environment. Consider a parking lot lighting array as an example: any commercial lot needs lighting. These lights need power from the grid or an alternative power source. By turning energy from the sun into power through a solar system, these lights reduce the demand for power from the utility company. Less power demanded from the utility company, in turn, means a reduced need to burn fossil fuels.
It’s estimated a single solar panel can offset the CO2 generated in its manufacturing process in about two years. The same solar panel can generate between 500-550 kWh per year—which is energy your utility company does not need to provide. Over its lifespan of more than 25 years, a single solar panel has the potential to offset more than 12,500 kWh of fossil fuel-generated power. Multiply that by the number of panels in your system and you begin to have an idea of the kind of environmental impact you’re investing in.
Environmental Impact Over the Lifespan of a Solar System
However, CO2 emissions (or lack thereof) are not the only impact solar systems can have on the environment.
For example, solar panels do not generate air pollution. However, they do not reduce air pollution themselves; instead, they offset power generated through the burning of fossil fuels.
While operational, solar panels use zero water to generate their electricity. In contrast, other methods of generating electricity frequently require water for cooling and steam.
This lack of air pollution or water usage makes small-scale solar systems one of the least likely sources of wildlife disruption in the energy sector; though animals might find the wide, flat solar panels to be a home to build nests around. In other words, wildlife tends to impact solar panels more than solar panels affect wildlife. However, there is a greater potential to impact wildlife through large-scale solar farms, such as bird collisions and runoff disruption due to the hundreds of solar panels redirecting water.
Throughout its lifespan, a rooftop solar system is a reliable, unobtrusive, minimal-impact solution to meeting electricity needs. Over the decades, a panel’s efficiency will eventually drop due to degradation. The length of a solar panel’s lifespan is dependent on external factors, including:
- Thermal cycling - The temperature change between extremes of hot and cold. This primarily impacts the soldered connections in a panel.
- Damp heat - Long-term exposure to high humidity and temperature, which can make the layers of solar cell insulation come apart.
- Humidity freeze - Sudden freezing due to high humidity and lower temperatures, which can impact the solar panel’s junction box.
- UV exposure - The inevitable discoloration and degradation of the solar panel’s backsheet caused by the UV rays in sunlight. This backsheet serves as an electrical insulator, and its deterioration can degrade the panel’s performance over time.
There are ways to repair solar panels and, if necessary, replace broken ones with the help of solar warranties. However, eventually, the system will have outlasted its useful performance and need to be replaced.
Once panels have reached the end of their usefulness, they can easily be recycled. Typical recycling processes include crushing and milling the solar components to recover precious metals and glass while disposing of the used silicon, ensuring spent panels can contribute to the construction of the next generation of solar systems.
It is important to note recycling efforts, like other green initiatives, frequently generate a certain amount of CO2 emissions. However, by recycling with an eye to the future, we can help reduce the need for more mining of these precious metals, reusing wherever possible.
Generating Power and Hope Worldwide
Solar power is the result of many decades of technological research and development. Efficient solar solutions are the result of combined individual efforts on a grand scale. A single house, with the right system, can generate enough power for itself and perhaps more. A single street light powered by stored sun energy can help reduce the electrical draw on the utility grid by a small amount—and small contributions add up.
When combined together and promoted through government and corporate incentives, we begin to see the potential impact of solar power on a massive scale.
There is no global switch to make the transition to clean, renewable energy overnight. We are a worldwide society of individuals and organizations making the choice to move away from electricity solutions which we know have negative environmental impacts on power generated from clean, renewable sources.
Blue Raven Solar focuses on solar panels for residential energy empowerment. Their mission is to make solar more accessible and affordable. They believe transparency throughout the process is key for any homeowner when making the decision to invest in solar. Together, with the communities who engage with solar power, we can all take steps toward a new, cleaner future of electricity.
About the Author: Anna Hall is a Content Marketing Specialist at Blue Raven Solar, managing the company's social media presence, overseeing technical writing, and generating solar-related content. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and has worked with companies like The Dance Data Project, PINK, and The Walt Disney Company. Anna believes in solar energy and the ability to change the world one homeowner at a time through living Blue Raven Solar’s values.