The Impact of Solar Panels on the Environment
Even though solar power exploits a clean and renewable source of energy - the sun - many have questioned whether it is completely green. The object of these doubts is not the way the electricity is produced, but the production process of solar panels itself, which does cause some pollution. But do these processes really parallel the pollution levels of fossil fuels?
In the past years, there have been concerns about toxic emissions of solar panel production processes being as dangerous, if not even more, than fossil fuels. Researchers have studied the matter closely by analysing dozens of manufacturers, and found out a significant difference between emissions from solar panel production and fossil fuel burning. Production of panels does employ hard metals that may be toxic, but the same goes for fuel burning.
The big difference is that solar panels do not generate any toxic emissions when they are producing electricity. Funnily enough, the pollution they cause during production is indirectly caused by fossil fuels, which power the factories with “traditional” electricity. According to the researchers who conducted the study, if everyone were to switch to solar power, air pollution would decrease by 90%.
The best way to make the manufacturing of solar panels a self sustaining process, independent from coal power plants, would be to store solar energy on a large scale. It seems like this technology is not far from being introduced, with companies like Tesla investing in huge “storage farms” that could be used for many large-scale purposes, rendering factories and companies completely independent from the grid.
Some have argued that the latest technologies introduced on the market, namely thin film panels, are manufactured using dangerous heavy metals such as Cadmium Telluride. While it is true that solar panel manufacturing uses these dangerous materials, coal and oil also contain the same substances, which are released with combustion. Moreover, coal power plants emit much more of these toxic substances, polluting up to 300 times more than solar panel manufacturers.
A significant issue linked to these toxic materials is their disposal. The good news is that, since they are quite rare and valuable, manufacturers are incentivated to recycle these materials. Some companies have started implementing recycling programs that start from collecting the solar panels (free of charge). The semiconductor materials are separated from glass, and the process manages to reuse up to 95% and 90%, respectively.
Read more: How are solar panels made?
Scientists have proven that production of solar panels is not completely emission-free, but its impact on the environment is only a small fraction of that of fossil fuels. Moreover, if factories were powered by solar energy, even those low emissions would be eliminated. So far, all cases against solar energy have been proven wrong, and solar panel manufacturers are working to improve this technology in order to make solar power a competitive alternative to carbon and oil.