The environmental impact of solar energy

Solar energy is becoming one of the most rapidly expanding renewable energies being adopted in homes worldwide. Installation prices are falling and usage is surging!

Besides lower electric bills, a primary motivating factor for homeowners who install solar panels is often an environmental one. Solar energy is much more kind to the environment than more traditional energy sources like fossil fuels or coal, but there are still a few negative consequences.

Although solar energy is a renewable energy source and environmentally friendly, there are still some negatives associated with its use. First, though, let’s look at the positives.

Minimize your carbon footprint by making the switch

What’s cool about solar and geothermal energies is that individual households can choose to independently adopt the technology, rather than power companies making the shift. Someone can’t, for example, shift from natural gas to hydroelectric power for just their household, but they can install photovoltaic cells on their roof.

Converting to solar power at your home is a powerful way to reduce your carbon footprint. Did you know that the average person in the United States produces 19.8 tons of carbon emissions per year? An average family of four produces between 60-80 tons of carbon per year by doing everyday things like driving, running utilities and buying groceries, according to the Nature Conservancy. That’s a lot!

If that same household of four people converts to solar energy, they can offset their carbon footprint by an average of six tons. It may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but as more people are making the shift, it starts to add up.

Calculate your own carbon footprint using a calculator on Nature Conservancy’s website or on the EPA’s website.

Solar panel production does carry some risks

Despite having a very small carbon footprint once solar panels start producing energy for consumers, some environmental damage is done during the production stage.

It’s worse in some places than others. A study conducted by Northwestern University found that the carbon footprint for producing solar panels in China is twice as high as those produced in European countries. That’s partly because China puts less emphasis on efficiency and “green” standards at its manufacturing plants than its European counterparts.

Sixty percent of solar energy is produced in Europe. That means if the solar panels are transported from China to, say, Norway, the carbon footprint is higher because of the transportation.

Chemical spills can also be a concern during solar panel production. Many chemicals are used for solar panel production, including cadmium, hydrogen sulfide, lead and around a dozen others. These are all either hazardous or irritants if they come into contact with people.

During routine operation, though, photovoltaic cells don’t produce gas or liquid pollutants, or radioactive waste.

Solar farms take up a lot of space

Solar panels installed on roof tops have minimal impact on their landscapes, but photovoltaic power stations — often referred to as solar farms — take up a lot of square footage, can be aesthetically undesirable and can (rarely) contribute to habitat loss.

A study conducted by the Centre for Renewable Energy Sources said that the aesthetic side of things can be mitigated by choosing sites wisely. Reclaiming land, like old mine sites, is a great way to offset the negative impact of land use. That’s something that, honestly, most solar farm owners are pretty good about.

But the space issue is also a problem once the panels have reached the end of their lifespan. Without a solid plan in place to recycle the solar panels, the remaining “junk” will take up a lot of space in landfills, much like other forms of technology like old cell phones, TVs and computers.

Solar panels have a lifespan of 25-30 years, so the first big wave of panels that need to be recycled will hit around 2030, according to a study by Penn State. An estimated 500,000 solar panels were installed globally every day in 2015. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that there will be 60-78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. It’s possible to reuse a lot of the materials in the panels — $15 billion worth of materials, according to IRENA.

Concentrated solar power plants are a whole other issue. These use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity. They require a lot of water to stay cool. For this type of solar energy, the use of 650 gallons of water per megawatt hour of electricity produced could be considered another negative environmental impact.

The environmental pros outweigh the cons

The negative environmental impact of solar energy is minimal compared to other energy sources, even when transportation, production, installation, water use and recycling issues is included. Most negatives associated with solar energy can be offset by strategic planning and high standards in the workplace and during production. Like other renewable energy sources, solar energy produces a small carbon footprint and is an excellent source for environmentally-friendly energy.

Author: Crystal Huskey
Bio: Crystal Huskey is a content writer at, an online retailer of new and reconditioned PTACs, along with a full range of parts and accessories.
Website Link: