We are only just realizing how powerful the sun is as an energy source. Solar energy can be used to produce electricity, to heat water and air, and to power vehicles and devices.

It is a renewable resource that does not contribute to pollution or climate change.

The solar industry is growing rapidly, with the global market for solar photovoltaics (PV) expected to reach USD 1,000.92 billion by 2028.

This growth is driven by falling costs, increasing efficiency, and government incentives.

Despite its many benefits, solar energy has some environmental impacts. These include land use, water use, manufacturing emissions, and waste generation.

The question is “are solar panels good for the environment?

The Impact Of Solar Energy On the Environment

Solar energy technologies and power plants do not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases when operating. 

Using solar energy can have a positive, indirect effect on the environment when solar energy replaces or reduces the use of other energy sources that have larger effects on the environment.

Solar power plants also require less water than other types of power plants, such as coal-fired power plants.

Solar photovoltaic cells do not use water to generate electricity, and concentrating solar power plants use up to 99% less water than traditional power plants during operations.

“Solar energy is the inexhaustible and CO2-emission-free energy source worldwide. The Sun provides 1.4 105 TW power as received on the surface of the Earth and about 3.6 104 TW of this power is used. In 2012, world power consumption was 17 TW, which is less than 3.6 104 TW.” (1)

Related: Here’s How Do Solar Panels Work?

How Much Energy Do Solar Panels Produce In A Day?

The amount of power generated by a solar panel is measured in kWh (kilowatt-hours), with most panels on the market today able to produce between 250 and 400 watts each day.

The typical capacity of a household solar system is typically 1 kWh to 4kWh.

This makes solar power one of the most greenest and efficient ways to generate electricity.

Related: How Much Do Solar Panel Systems Cost?

How Much Land Does Solar Energy Use?

The average amount of land required for a utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant is about 5 acres per megawatt (MW) of electricity generated.

Solar farms can require even less land than that, as much as 2.5 acres per megawatt in some cases.

The average residential PV system in the U.S. requires about 0.4 acres of land or 18,750 square feet.

Related: Solar Panel Statistics Updated This Year

The Positive and Negative Environmental Impact Of Solar Energy

In this segment, we’ll compare both the positive and negative impacts of solar, whether it hurts or helps the environment, and its long-term impact.

The positive environmental impact of solar energy

  • Promotes Water Conservation.
  • Reduces Greenhouse Gases And Carbon Emissions.
  • Avoids Strain On Earth’s Non-renewable Resources.
  • Helps Slow Down Climate Change.
  • Minimizes Air Pollution.

Promotes water conservation

When solar panels produce solar power they don’t use any water.

This is in contrast to traditional power plants which use water for cooling purposes. The lack of water usage by solar panels reduces the strain on earth’s freshwater resources.

Reduces greenhouse gases and carbon emissions

Solar panel technology doesn’t produce any harmful gases or carbon emissions when generating electricity.

This is one of the main reasons why solar energy is such a popular renewable energy source. The lack of emissions from solar panels also helps to slow down climate change.

Avoids strain on Earth’s non-renewable resources

Solar power generation doesn’t require the use of any non-renewable resources, such as coal, oil, or natural gas.

This means that using solar panels can help to preserve these resources for future generations.

Helps slow down climate change

The greenhouse gases emitted from traditional power plants are a major contributor to climate change.

As solar panels don’t produce any emissions, they help to reduce the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and slow down the process of climate change.

Minimizes air pollution

Solar panels also help to improve air quality as they don’t produce any air pollution when generating electricity.

This is in contrast to traditional power plants which release harmful gases into the atmosphere. The lack of air pollution from solar panels helps to improve public health and reduces the number of respiratory problems.

The negative environmental impact of solar energy

  • Habitat loss.
  • Alteration in land use.
  • The strain on water resources.
  • Exposure to hazardous materials.
  • Pollution of soil, air, and water resources.

Habitat loss

According to a research by the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University, if the United States were to adopt a more ambitious climate goal, the ecological footprint of solar power development may reach nearly 27,500 square miles—about the size of South Carolina—when thousands of solar panels are put in unspoiled natural areas.

When numerous solar panels are placed in the same area, it can create a significant habitat loss.

Alteration in land use

The large-scale installation of solar panels can result in a change of land use. This is because when solar farms are built, agricultural land or natural habitats are often converted into artificial landscapes consisting of solar panels.

The alteration in land use can have a negative impact on the local ecosystem and disrupt the natural balance of the area.

The strain on water resources

Solar panel technology requires a lot of water for manufacturing, cleaning, and cooling purposes. In fact, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the majority of solar photovoltaic panel manufacturing operations use roughly 20 gallons per megawatt-hour, or gal/MWh, to clean solar collection and reflection surfaces like mirrors (heliostats), as well as PV panels.

Exposure to hazardous materials

The chemicals used in the manufacturing of CdTe solar cells, such as CdTe, CdS, and cadmium chloride (CdCl2), can be harmful to one’s health.

Because cadmium compounds are commonly employed in powder and liquid forms, inhalation of cadmium-containing vapors or dust, or skin contact with cadmium liquids, pastes, or powders can lead to acute and chronic health effects.

Pollution of soil, air, and water resources

The production of solar panels also results in the pollution of soil, air, and water resources.

This is because the manufacturing process of solar panels involves the use of harmful chemicals and materials, such as cadmium, lead, and hydrofluoric acid.

These chemicals can pollute the environment and pose a risk to human health.

The Environmental Impact Of Floating Solar Panels

Floating-PV eliminates not only land space, but solar panels can also give surface shade and water cover, reducing evaporation.

This may be particularly useful in countries with water shortages, as it is presently predicted that more water evaporates from reservoirs than humans use.

However, the impact of marine photovoltaics on the ecosystem is determined by project design, as well as environmental variables such as geography, water depth, proximity to shore, and local hydro- and oceanographical conditions.

The Environmental Impact Of Solar Panel Farms

The construction of solar energy power plants, like any large-scale industrial facility, can have a harmful effect on air quality.

Such risks include the emission of soil-borne pathogens, which results in an increase in airborne particulate matter that pollutes water reservoirs.

Soil erosion is another issue associated with solar panel farms’ development.

The land surrounding a solar photovoltaic facility must be kept clear of trees and other vegetation in order to reduce shading on the solar panels.

This can result in the removal of natural habitats that support local wildlife. The pollution created by the farming process, as well as the use of pesticides and herbicides, can also have a negative impact on the environment.

The Environmental Impact Of Solar Panel Disposal

Recycling solar panels is quite a hard endeavor. This is due to the fact that a solar panel has several different types of materials, including glass, aluminum, plastic, and silicon.

These materials need to be separated and then recycled separately. The process of recycling solar panels is energy-intensive and can generate pollutants.

The recycling of solar panels also creates hazardous waste, which must be disposed of safely.

Disposing of solar panels in landfills is not a good option, as the hazardous materials in solar panels can leach into the ground and contaminate soil and water resources.

FAQs

How much does solar energy reduce carbon footprint?

The average home solar PV system, according to the Energy Saving Trust, can save 1.3 to 1.6 tonnes of carbon each year in the United Kingdom. This significantly lowers a home’s carbon footprint.

How many renewable energy sources are there?

There are five major renewable energy sources. Solar energy from the sun, Geothermal energy from the heat inside the earth, Wind energy by way of wind turbines, Biomass from plants, and Hydropower from flowing water.

References

(1) (academia.edu M. Hosenuzzaman et al).

About the Author

Passionate about helping households transition to sustainable energy with helpful information and resources.

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