Environmental Issues of solar energy

environmental impact of solar energySolar energy is a win-win: in addition to its significant financial benefits, going solar is also great for the environment. When your solar panels generate electricity, they produce zero emissions, which means they don’t contribute to climate change or health issues like more traditional sources of energy. They also draw their energy from the sun, an abundant resource that will be available and accessible across the world for the foreseeable future. All that said, what you may not realize is that there is actually an environmental impact of solar energy too.

Solar panels produce zero emissions once installed on your roof, which means their environmental impact is negligible for most of their life. However, solar panels aren’t zero-emissions resources for their entire lifetime – as they have to be manufactured in a factory first, as well as recycled at the end of their useful life. These two processes are where solar actually has an environmental impact.

Many researchers frame the environmental impact of solar energy with the concept of energy payback time, or EPBT. The EPBT tells us how long it will take for solar panels to produce enough clean electricity to “pay back” the energy that was used to produce them. This calculation varies depending on a few different factors, including:

  • The productivity of your solar panels. If you live in an area that has lots of sunlight, and your solar panels are very efficient, then your system will generate more electricity and have a shorter EPBT.
  • How your solar panels are produced. Some solar panels require more energy to produce than others. For example, thin-film modules have a smaller footprint than silicon modules, because less energy is needed to manufacture them.
  • Where your solar panels are made Solar panels have to be transported from where they were made to where they will be installed. If your solar panels were manufactured in Europe or Asia but installed in the U.S. then they had to be transported further, requiring more energy usage and thus increasing their EPBT.

The good news is that, while the EPBT of a solar panel is dependent on many factors, the market is moving in the right direction. In 1970, the average energy payback time for solar panels was 40 years. By 2010, that number had dropped to just six months.

As the solar industry matures, manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make solar panels more efficiently, which means that solar’s EPBT will continue to decrease. For example, in the past 10 years, there has been a 62 percent decrease in the amount of material used for silicon cells, thanks to increased efficiency and thinner designs. This decrease means that less energy is spent processing silicon during the manufacturing process. And as more solar panels are retired, recycling them will become more cost-effective and efficient too, further reducing their EPBT.

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