Solar power advocates regularly talk about how going solar can help the planet, but may not be able to explain the environmental benefits of using solar energy in detail. As a result, you may find yourself wondering, “Are solar panels eco-friendly?”
If you’re considering a solar energy system at home, work, or within your community, let’s take a look at how photovoltaic (PV) systems impact the environment and the reasons that solar energy is eco-friendly.
Health and Environmental Benefits of Using Solar Energy
With solar energy adoption, departures from combustion-based power sources can create a positive change for both the planet and its inhabitants (hint: that’s us). To help you advocate for solar energy installations in every capacity, here are four key environmental benefits of solar energy.
1. Reduced Air Pollution
According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2021, over 60% of the electricity produced in the United States was generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. At the same time, only 20% of US electricity was generated from renewable resources such as wind, hydro, and solar.
Here, a national shift to eco-friendly solar and other green energies can dramatically reduce local carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N₂O), sulfur dioxide (SO₂), and particulate matter emissions. In an analysis conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a combination of solar energy development and widespread electrification is a proven, feasible path toward significantly improved domestic air quality.
2. Fights Global Warming
Carbon emissions and other greenhouse gasses are major contributors to the increase in global temperature, known as global warming. Although some greenhouse gas emissions may be present during manufacturing and transportation, solar photovoltaic panels do not produce any greenhouse gasses while generating electricity, making them a good source of clean energy.
Knowing this, every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by a solar panel, rather than a fossil fuel like natural gas, can reduce the end user’s carbon footprint. With international solar energy adoption, fewer greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will help curb the effects of climate change from global warming.
3. Reduces Resource Stress
It is easy to forget that there is a finite amount of fossil fuels available, and once they are gone, we can't get them back (at least not for millions of years). This means that making the switch to renewable energy isn't just better for the environment, it is necessary to continue powering our world for future generations.
Alongside a finite amount of fossil fuels as an energy source, water is another critical resource to consider for the long-term health of the planet. While the production of solar panels does use some water (especially in the extraction and processing of minerals), the process still uses significantly less water than traditional electricity sources.
4. Improves Global Health
Beyond its effects on global warming, carbon emissions can have a serious impact on human health, affecting vital organs, such as the heart and lungs. By reducing the amount of carbon and other pollutants entering the atmosphere, cleaner air brought forth by solar energy adoption can decrease the risks of heart disease, asthma attacks, and premature deaths, which are major health issues globally.
Environmental Challenges of Solar Energy
With improved health outcomes, slowed global warming, reduced pollution, and decreased resource stress, the environmental benefits of solar panels are clear, and solar energy is a great resource to power the future with the environment in mind.
However, solar power is not perfect, as it does come with some environmental drawbacks. Mainly, the ecological concerns about solar revolve around its mining and manufacturing processes. Thankfully, the solar industry is committed to addressing these challenges head-on.
1. Water Usage
While solar panels do not use water when generating electricity, as mentioned earlier, both the manufacturing and recycling processes do use some water. In addition, some utility-scale solar power plants do use water in the process they use to produce electricity. To combat this today, solar thermal plants (CSP) utilize hybrid and wet-recirculating technology aimed at reducing total water consumption.
Better yet, PV systems do not require any water for cooling, and new manufacturing practices are constantly being explored that will reduce the amount of water used in the production of new solar panels.
2. Land Usage
Environmental advocates have raised concerns about land degradation and habitat loss caused by the development of large solar farms. Unlike wind facilities that can share space with crops, solar panel farms have much more limited space for agriculture, so they can seem like a "waste" of land.
Solar can generate power wherever the sun shines, so researchers are studying how to minimize land impact by placing solar farms in lower-quality locations, such as brownfields, abandoned mining land, or existing transportation and transmission corridors. Solar proponents also state that this “waste” of land could be reduced by increasing the use of solar panels on the roofs of commercial and residential buildings.
Some states are employing exciting strategies to prepare for the future. For instance, California is planning to place solar panels over canals to promote renewable energy, conserve water, and manage lands more sustainably.
3. Chemical Waste
To create solar panels that can capture sunlight and generate electricity, quartz-rich sand must be converted into polysilicon. Unfortunately, the chemical reaction that creates this polysilicon produces a harmful byproduct known as silicon tetrachloride. If not disposed of properly, silicon tetrachloride can cause soil acidification and emit harmful fumes.
Luckily, silicon tetrachloride can be recycled back into polysilicon, reducing the amount of leftover waste. Solar manufacturers in China are legally required to recycle at least 98.5% of silicon tetrachloride waste they create and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is researching alternative production methods that avoid silicon tetrachloride altogether.
Solar Power is Good for the Environment
By switching to solar and other renewable energies, a reduction in fossil fuel emissions can help our planet mitigate global warming and improve air quality. Solar energy has a wide array of applications, and when combined with widespread electrification, it can be used to sustainably power the world’s homes and businesses with the sun’s energy, and support a better path towards global health.
Using solar energy has a wide range of environmental benefits, including reduced air pollution and resource stress. While there still are some negative environmental impacts with how solar panel systems are developed, industry leaders are actively researching solutions to these problems and finding more sustainable methods to deploy and use improved technology.
If you're ready to install solar panels on your home to create a positive environmental impact, talk to Palmetto today. For a quick look at your home's solar savings potential, check out our Free Solar Design and Savings Estimate tool to instantly see if solar panels will work on your roof, and how much you could save on your utility bills.