Are Solar Panels Bad for the Environment?
Solar power is a technology with tremendous potential to help solve the climate crisis, but does it come with its own share of flaws? Is solar as good for the environment as we think it is? And is it worth replacing conventional energy sources with?
While solar panels last an incredibly long time, they do require some energy in their manufacturing. And like any other electronic device, there is also the looming question of safe disposal and recycling. Ultimately, what matters is the net environmental impact of solar energy, or to put it simply, whether its ecological benefits outweigh its limitations or not.
Fortunately, the benefits of solar do outweigh its few limitations by a huge margin. Here’s how.
Energy Consumption in Panel Production
Solar panels are complex devices, and their manufacturing involves a lot of traditional processes. From extracting raw materials and manufacturing individual components to panel assembly and the transportation involved, everything requires energy.
Despite this, there are two important factors that justify the adoption of solar.
1. Since solar panels last 25 or more years, the energy used in making them is recovered in only a fraction of their lifetime. NREL, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy estimates the ¡°energy payback¡± of rooftop solar systems to be 1-4 years. In other words, solar panels may generate up to 25 times the energy that was lost in making them.
To compare this with coal, we need to compare the numbers for lifetime emissions. Every kWh of energy generated from coal emits an equivalent of around 800g of CO2, while for solar this number is just 5g.
2. As solar power becomes mainstream, a lot of the energy required in their manufacturing comes from clean sources themselves. For example, LG Solar is a prominent solar panel manufacturer worldwide, and the company has at least 19 MW of solar panels on its own production facilities. These are tens of thousands of solar panels aiding in the production of new solar panels, thus reducing the carbon footprint of solar panel manufacturing.
Solar Waste Disposal/Recycling
Like most other electronics, we haven¡¯t been able to design solar panels that nature can decompose, at least not yet. This makes their end-of-life treatment an important question. Thankfully, solar panels can be recycled to reuse a large number of their components.
A panel¡¯s weight is generally comprised of glass (76%), plastic (10%), aluminum (8%), silicon (5%), and metals (1%). Each of these materials can be processed to re-use with an 80-100% recycling efficiency, which is quite commendable. Today, there are dozens of solar panel recycling facilities worldwide, and the number is constantly growing.
Solar power has seen the greatest rise in the past decade, and the life of solar panels is 25 years or more, which means we will see large amounts of solar panel waste only in the next 1-2 decades, and until then an even larger fleet of recycling facilities is expected to come on line.
In Every Problem Lies an Opportunity
Right now we might think of solar panel recycling as just a secondary industry to minimize solar waste production, but it promises to be a lot more. According to research conducted by GVR, the global solar panel recycling market size is expected to reach a staggering $333.8 million by 2027.
Similarly, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) highlights in one of its reports that the recycling of solar panels can unlock an estimated 78 million tonnes of raw materials and other valuable components by 2050. This amounts to a staggering USD 15 billion.
Solar power has already demonstrated the ability to create a significant number of jobs, and panel recycling can further ramp that up.
It is clear that over their lifetime, solar panels consume significantly fewer resources than conventional energy sources, but their sustainability follows even at the end of their life, thanks to sophisticated recycling mechanisms. As such, it makes even more sense to go solar, from an ecological standpoint, just as it does from a financial one.
Additionally, it is wise to choose a brand that is genuinely committed to sustainability, like LG solar. LG’s high-efficiency means you need fewer modules as compared to traditional, lower efficiency panels, hence creating less waste. This can further improve the positive impact solar panels can have on our world.
So, are solar panels good for the environment? No, they are incredible!