Solar energy is often touted, not just as a cost-efficient way to power everything from our homes to motor vehicles, but also the greener alternative to using coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity. But just how “green” is buying solar panels?
Well, not so green, it would turn out. Fabricating the photovoltaic panels needed to store and harness light particles for energy requires a caustic mix of chemicals, including sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, as well as regular, good old-fashioned greenhouse-gas-emitting electricity to produce each panel.
Country of origin determines carbon footprint
Some solar panel manufacturers are better at this than others, but varying regulations and manufacturing practices make it difficult to get standardised data about the environmental footprint of photovoltaic panels. One study from Northwestern University in the US found that panels from China have a carbon footprint twice that of ones manufactured in Europe, which is largely because China has fewer environmental standards and more coal-fired plants.
In other parts of the world, like the US, solar panels are subject to both federal and state rules relating to how and where toxic waste can be disposed of, while in Europe there are certain regulations mandate the reduction and proper disposal of hazardous electronic waste.
The chicken-or-egg problem of recycling
There’s also the matter of solar panel recycling. There currently aren’t enough places to recycle old solar panels, nor are there enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive. As a result what panels there are that require disposing of usually wind up in landfill, even though recycling them properly is important due to the chemicals that go in to producing them.
Silicon is also a main component of most solar panels manufactured today. But a silicon-based solar cell requires a lot of energy to be produced, and the source of that energy, which is often coal, also determines how large the panel’s carbon footprint will be.
What does this mean for you if you’re buying solar panels?
People looking to start buying solar panels or having solar installed around the home or elsewhere should shop wisely. Find out where the panels were manufactured and what chemicals went into their production. If it’s possible, find out how easy they are to recycle, because while they may have a lifespan of around 25 years, there will come a time when they’ll need to be disposed of.
You want to make sure that you’re able to dispose of solar panels safely and with minimal impact to the environment, otherwise all your good work being environmentally will be undone.