Developing solar panels to utilize the abundant energy from the sun to generate power for grids and homes has reduced fossil fuel emissions. It will continue to do so, but solar panels have an environmental downside.
Using solar panels to replace fossil fuels as a source of clean, renewable energy means they are good for the environment. However, the materials solar panels are made from may be harmful to that same environment if not recycled and disposed of properly.
To get both sides of this discussion, we need to consider the following:
- The advantages of using solar energy
- Disadvantages of using solar energy
- Are solar panels environmentally friendly
Many people believe that solar panels are solely beneficial, and to a large degree, they are, but the truth is they can have some potential side effects that we need to be aware of.
What Are The Primary Advantages Of Solar Energy?
Solar power is an abundant, clean, and renewable energy source for planet Earth and our civilization. It is utilized efficiently; it could power humanity for millennia while stabilizing and reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel stations.
Solar Energy Is Abundant Worldwide
As a power source, it is probably the most abundant non-terrestrial one available, and we have begun to harness it successfully for our homes and cities. I say started as there is still a lot of development to do in this field to maximize the efficiency of solar panels.
Our sun is halfway through its lifetime and will only burn out in about five billion years, so we are in no danger of it becoming depleted soon.
Most countries could use solar energy to supplement fossil fuels and other energy sources such as wind or geothermal.
Solar Energy Costs Are Reducing
The evolution of technology and the rising demand for solar energy have ensured that the cost of solar energy is reducing to more affordable every year. As solar panels become more efficient and used ones are recycled, this cost will decrease.
Third-world countries with high levels of solar exposure are developing large solar farms to provide power to more people and industries. This bodes well for reducing carbon emissions in the future as solar requires no emissions and does not add to pollution.
Solar Energy Has A Variety Of Applications
Photovoltaic energy from the sun generates electricity, while solar thermal energy is used to heat water and create electricity by driving steam turbines. Solar power is also used to water crops and power cars and other vehicles.
Few other renewables and abundant energy sources can provide this sustainability and consistency in supply and variety.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Solar Energy?
The sun is not always up, so solar energy is unavailable 24/7, and storage costs are high. The capital cost of solar energy is higher than any other, and solar panels are not efficient. Land-based farms take up a lot of space, panels can get damaged by weather, and their components are toxic and harmful.
Solar Energy Has A High Capital Expenditure
Solar energy has high costs to set up. Although the costs are reducing, installing solar energy systems is still a long-term ROI for homeowners and business owners.
Storage Systems Are Expensive & At Risk From Weather
Storing energy is expensive and takes up space, as anyone with a home or business PV system knows. Whether lithium-ion or lead-calcium, batteries require maintenance and don’t have an infinite lifespan.
Solar panels are at risk from the environment and can be damaged by hail and other severe weather events, requiring replacing at a cost.
Solar Energy Is Inefficient
Because the best solar panels can only utilize around 22% of the available energy, you need a large quantity of them to generate enough power. When set up for land-based solar farms, they use more space per kW generated than geothermal or wind.
Solar Panel Materials Are Toxic
Solar panels are mostly made from glass and silicon semiconductors that make up the panels’ photovoltaic cells. They also have steel components for the frame and some wiring to conduct the electricity.
Solar panels use minerals like lead and cadmium in their manufacturing processes, which are highly toxic to the environment. Harmful and highly toxic compounds like acetone, gallium arsenide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and hydrogen sulfide manufacture solar panels.
Recycling Solar Panels Can Be Environmentally Hazardous
In the USA, regulations require solar panel manufacturers to recycle panels rather than dispose of or destroy them. Still, in other countries that produce high volumes of panels, old and broken ones are often discarded in landfills or fields, resulting in air and water pollution.
Recycling solar panels is also expensive as it requires the disassembly of the panel and extraction of electrical components before the glass and silicon can be recycled.
Do Solar Panels Contribute To Global Warming?
Solar panels do not heat the Earth; they do the opposite by absorbing solar radiation and shading the ground from the sun. They reduce dependence on carbon-based power generation, helping to offset the greenhouse effect.
By using solar radiation as a fuel source and not producing emissions of any kind, solar panels are assisting in reducing the impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
However, studies have shown that large-scale solar farms could affect the regional climate by reducing temperatures slightly as they absorb radiation rather than letting it hit the Earth.
In turn, this could reduce the rainfall in that area and contribute to a rise in temperatures. But, these experiments took energy demand to extremes and concluded that the overall impact of temperature rise would be negligible compared to fossil fuels.
What Are The Long-Term Effects Of Solar Energy?
The long-term benefits of solar power include less dependence on fossil fuels for energy and transport, lower environmental impacts, business opportunities, and lower noise and air pollution.
Overall, the long-term effects of using solar power far outweigh any negatives this energy source has for Planet Earth. Aside from the abundance and the growing efficiency of solar panels, solar power will reduce our fixation on oil and coal and gradually help our planet become healthier.
It also offers business and job opportunities for application in energy and transport and perhaps other fields not even considered.
When the technology is advanced enough, we may even find that solar-powered planes and ships become the norm reducing the air and noise pollution from vehicles worldwide.
A future with solar energy is promising and exciting as we move away from fossil fuels to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly civilization.