The sun is a huge source of energy which has only recently been tapped into. It provides immense resources which can generate clean, non-polluting and sustainable electricity, thus resulting in no global warming emissions. In recent years, it was discovered that the power of the sun can be collected and stored, to be used on a global scale with the purpose of eventually replacing the conventional sources of energy. As the world is turning its focus to cleaner power, solar energy has seen a significant rise in importance.
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Solar energy systems offer significant environmental benefits in comparison to the conventional energy sources, thus they greatly contribute to the sustainable development of human activities. At times however, the wide scale deployment of such systems has to face potential negative environmental implications. These possible problems may be a strong barrier for further advancement of these systems in some consumers.
The potential environmental impacts associated with solar power can be classified according to numerous categories, some of which are land use impacts, ecological impacts, impacts to water, air and soil, and other impacts such as socioeconomic ones, and can vary greatly depending on the technology, which includes two broad categories:
- Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells or
- Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP).
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Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy
Land Use and Ecological Impacts
In the point of generating electricity at a utility-scale, solar energy facilities necessitate large areas for collection of energy. Due to this, the facilities may interfere with existing land uses and can impact the use of areas such as wilderness or recreational management areas. As energy systems may impact land through materials exploration, extraction, manufacturing and disposal, energy footprints can become incrementally high. Thus, some of the lands may be utilized for energy in such a way that returning to a pre-disturbed state necessitates significant energy input or time, or both, whereas other uses are so dramatic that incurred changes are irreversible.
Impacts to Soil, Water and Air Resources
The construction of solar facilities on vast areas of land imposes clearing and grading, resulting in soil compaction, alteration of drainage channels and increased erosion. Central tower systems require consuming water for cooling, which is a concern in arid settings, as an increase in water demand may strain available water resources as well as chemical spills from the facilities which may result in the contamination of groundwater or the ground surface.
As with the development of any large-scale industrial facility, the construction of solar energy power plants can pose hazards to air quality. Such threats include the release of soil-carried pathogens and results in an increase in air particulate matter which has the effect of contaminating water reservoirs.
Besides the aforementioned environmental impacts, solar energy facilities also may have other impacts, such as influencing the socio-economic state of an area. Construction and operation of utility-scale solar energy facilities in an area would produce direct and indirect economic impacts.
- The direct impacts would occur as a result of expenses on wages and salaries as well as the attaining of goods and services which are required for project construction and operation.
- Indirect impacts would occur in the form of project wages and salaries procurement expenditures, which create additional employment, income, and tax revenues. Facility construction and operation would require in-migration of workers, affecting housing, public services, and local government employment.
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Recycling Solar Panels
Currently the recycling of solar panels faces a big issue, specifically, there aren't enough locations to recycle old solar panels, and there aren't enough non-operational solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive. Recycling of solar panels is particularly important because the materials used to make the panels are rare or precious metals, all of them being composed of silver, tellurium, or indium. Due to the limitability of recycling the panels, those recoverable metals may be going to waste which may result in resource scarcity issues in the future.
Looking at silicon for example, one resource that is needed to make the majority of present day photovoltaic cells and which there is currently an abundance of, however a silicon-based solar cell requires a lot of energy input in its manufacturing process, the source of that energy, which is often coal, determining how large the cell's carbon footprint is.
The lack of awareness regarding the manufacturing process of solar panels and to the issue of recycling these, as well as the absence of much external pressure are the causes of the insufficiency in driving significant change in the recycling of the materials used in solar panel manufacturing, a business that, from a power-generation standpoint, already has great environmental credibility.
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Read more: Recycling Solar Panels