The Solar Life Cycle: How ‘Green’ is This Green Energy Source?

by | Aug 11, 2021 | Blog

Solar panels installed on a rolling green landscape.

Summary

  • There are many concerns over the negative impacts solar energy may have on the environment during the production and decommissioning stages. But many of these arguments stem from misinformation in today’s energy market.
  • As with any energy source, solar power is not perfect. Currently, there are concerns over the up-front energy requirements during production, the use of chemicals, and the responsible recycling of solar systems.
  • The delay in introducing adequate solar panel recycling facilities is not unexpected. After all, it takes time for secondary industries to develop around primary ones. Recycling options and the costs associated with them will improve as more solar panels are decommissioned.
  • Like most manufacturing processes, it generally requires a considerable amount of energy to create a solar panel. However, the total emissions are largely front-loaded and once installed, a solar panel can produce eco-friendly energy for 25 years or more.

Introduction

Solar power is considered the future of renewable energy due to its accessibility, capacity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. Despite all of these positive attributes, debates continue to spark as people are questioning how ‘green’ solar panels actually are. Environmental concerns have led some to challenge whether solar should be considered the ‘go-to’ green energy source.

There is a lot of talk about the benefits of solar energy. For example, solar panels create more clean energy than is needed to manufacture them, and they are a much better energy source than burning fossil fuels. Regardless of how promising these factors are, it’s important that we don’t ignore the other side of the story.

The main argument against solar panels is that they may use more energy than they can save – allegedly due to some of the fossil-fuel-burning processes that are required to source elements, build cells and transport the panels. There are also concerns over the toxic chemicals that are used during the manufacturing of solar panels. But which of these arguments are valid in today’s solar energy market, and which ones are misinformed?

This article will explore the positive and negative environmental impacts of solar panels and look at how the solar energy industry is working hard to actively eradicate many of the existing drawbacks.

The Perceived Negative Impacts of Solar Energy

Most solar companies are responsible, but there are some that dump chemical waste instead of disposing of it properly.

As with any energy source, solar power still has some areas for improvement. The potential drawbacks may come into play when we consider the growing need to generate clean energy for over 7 billion people in a sustainable and economical fashion. Here are some of the supposed downsides of solar power:

  • Limited Recycling Options – Solar panel recycling has not yet become a major environmental issue. However, it will be a problem in the coming decades as existing solar panels need to be replaced. Currently, many solar modules are being disposed of with other standard e-waste. Countries without robust e-waste disposal systems are at higher risk of issues related to recycling.
  • Upfront Energy Requirements – The upfront energy needed to create solar panels is significant. Mining, manufacturing and transportation all need substantial amounts of power. The quartz used in solar cells needs to be processed and cleaned and then assembled with other components which may originate from other facilities. Heating the quartz during the processing phase also requires intense temperatures that require considerable energy to sustain. This manufacturing method also involves combining multiple materials with enormous precision to create high-efficiency solar panels. All of these activities require high levels of up-front energy.
  • The Use of Hazardous Chemicals – Making solar-grade silicon often requires semiconductor processing that can involve a few dangerous chemicals. There is a risk that these chemicals might not be disposed of correctly, as the responsibility lies with panel manufacturers and industry regulators (which vary from country to country). As with many sectors, there are companies setting inspiring standards and leading by example. Sadly, there are others who cut corners to save time and money (potentially at the expense of the environment). Most solar companies are responsible, but there are some that dump chemical waste instead of disposing of it properly.

Solar Panel Recycling and Disposal Procedures

Solar panel recycling and economics will improve as more solar panels are decommissioned, since the higher volumes will allow for the industry to scale the economics.

It may seem odd to start at the end of a solar panel’s ‘useful life’, but recycling and disposal are major areas of concern when assessing how green this energy source is. Interestingly, the problem is not as widespread or toxic as some consider it to be. It is also not as problematic as other sources of renewable energy.

The silicon wafer in a standard solar module is usually encapsulated by ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA). The EVA layer is used to protect the silicon wafer from damage. If a solar module is not disposed of responsibly and subjected to specific test conditions, it is possible for some leaching (draining via percolation) to occur. In normal operating conditions, these materials are not released.

Solar power as a source of energy is an effective carbon mitigator. However, with all new energy technologies, there is currently some inevitable waste that needs to be dealt with. The obvious answer is to recycle solar panels and sell their base elements. Although this is great in theory, it is not yet scalable or economical. There are some large scale solar panel recycling plants in operation, but they are not as widespread as they need to be.

The delay in introducing adequate solar panel recycling facilities is not unexpected. It is normal for there to be a lag of this kind with new industries and technologies. For example, plastic recycling plants were not waiting around the corner following the widespread use of disposable bottles. Auto recyclers were not set up after the first mass-produced car rolled off the assembly line. E-waste recycling has only recently become commonplace following decades of consumer electronics. Unfortunately, it takes time for these secondary industries to develop around primary ones. Solar panel recycling and economics will improve as more solar panels are decommissioned, since the higher volumes will allow for the industry to scale the economics.

As we wait for engineers to develop innovative approaches to solar recycling, there may be a solution to aid the economics of solar panel disposal. For example, a fee could be applied to solar panel manufacturers to ease the recycling process. Alternatively, governments could make it a legal obligation for a recycling program to be executed. These two options will take a bit of time to implement and perfect. However, these initiatives could result in improved solar panel recycling rates.

How Does Solar Panel Manufacturing Affect the Environment?

As with all manufacturing, it generally requires a considerable amount of energy to create a solar panel, but the total emissions are largely front-loaded.

Infographic of the key solar panel elements.

Solar panels have very few components compared to other energy sources. Each one consists of a frame, cells, a back sheet, protective film, conductors and a tempered glass cover. A standard solar panel has an aluminium frame, silicon cells, copper conductors, and a polymer or plastic-based back sheet and film.

Raw materials, predominantly quartz, need to be mined to make solar panels. The quartz is then processed into silicon. Aluminium and silver or copper are key materials used in the manufacturing process, and they also need to be mined. Ideally, these elements can be obtained from recycled sources, but they are predominantly mined due to the increased growth of the PV industry over the last decade.

Once the raw materials have been mined, the quartz is processed into electronic-grade silicon. The process entails heating the quartz in a very hot furnace and causing it to react with various chemicals. There are also other manufacturing processes required for producing the extruded aluminium frame and rolling the tempered glass.

As with all manufacturing, it generally requires a considerable amount of energy to create a solar panel, but the total emissions are largely front-loaded. Once solar panels are made and installed, they will produce eco-friendly energy for 25 years or more.

The Takeaway

As is the case with all green energy sources, there is plenty more room for innovation in the solar sector. Solar panels currently require a large amount of energy to manufacture. Likewise, the process of mining for the various elements used to make them requires a considerable amount of power. There are also some concerns regarding the chemicals that are used during the manufacturing process, but these indisputable facts do not equate to solar panels having a net negative impact on the planet.

Overall, solar power has a positive impact on the environment (and often the economy). The energy needed to create a solar panel may potentially be recouped in less than two years. Furthermore, when taking manufacturing and processing into consideration, the production emissions associated with solar panels are 3 to 25 times less than fossil fuel equivalents.

When solar power is compared to any fossil fuel (and coal, in particular), the source is incredibly green. Solar power may not be perfect yet, but the industry is making some serious headway in eliminating the damaging impacts it may have on the environment. Overall, solar energy is a fantastic green energy source.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the main sources of green energy?

Green power is a subcategory of the energy sector made up of renewable energy resources and technologies that provide the most promising environmental prospects. The main sources of green power are solar, wind, geothermal, and biogas initiatives – along with selective biomass and hydroelectric sources.

 

Why should you switch to green energy?

Switching to green energy means that you will be supporting electricity that has been generated in a way that is better for the environment. You will no longer rely on sources that cause greenhouse gas emissions that result in air pollution, water contamination, and global warming. Green energy has helped to diversify the energy supply, and it reduces our reliance on imported fuels. Apart from the environmental benefits, it also contributes to economic development and creates jobs in manufacturing, installation, and many other fields.

 

Is solar energy environmentally friendly?

Solar power is considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly energy sources and is improving all the time. As the impact of solar power expands across the globe, scientists and manufacturers are actively aspiring to create even better, more sustainable solar technologies.

 

Why is solar energy one of the most reliable forms of green energy?

Unlike non-renewable sources, sunlight does not emit any harmful gases. Fossil fuels are on the other end of the spectrum. Through various combustion processes, they release damaging gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur and nitrous oxides into the atmosphere.

 

Where in Canada would benefit from greener energy sources?

There are some Canadian provinces that rely on fossil fuels as their primary source of energy. These most notably include Saskatchewan and Alberta. Interestingly, these prairie provinces can benefit from solar power – especially given the abundance of sunlight they tend to offer.

 

What is the future of green energy?

According to the International Energy Agency, clean energy is on track to make up 30% of the world’s energy mix by 2024. Currently, this surge is chiefly driven by solar and wind projects that continue to be implemented at a fast pace. In 2019, solar panels made up 60% of the renewable energy capacity. The sector continues to grow as more governments and technology giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon invest in solar energy projects.