Is solar energy really what we think of it, clean and negative sides?
To find out, we need to focus on the problem. Let’s move.
Solar energy and photovoltaic panels
I believe you know that solar energy belongs to the field of renewable energy sources. It is produced by using resources that are produced faster than the speed at which the human heart consumes.
2017 was a record year for renewable energy, as for the first time, more than two-thirds of global net electricity growth was renewable. Of all the renewable sources, the solar photovoltaic system (PV) was the fastest-growing (97 GW), especially in China. In fact, the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Japan are the countries that encourage the growth of solar energy the most. They see it multiple times and especially as a way to improve economic attractiveness.
From this follows the question, do all this development and growth of the solar energy industry mean that it is clean or green for production?
Is solar energy bad?
There are some truths about this, but it is not fair to say that solar energy is bad, at least not compared to other types of energy powered by fossil fuels. Some shortcomings are worth analyzing. Let’s start by clarifying that solar energy is not zero emissions, clean, or 100% green. But why is this so if solar panels receive the sun’s rays and produce electricity by heating without releasing CO2?
If we take a closer look at the life cycle of solar panels, we will realize that they create a certain amount of pollution and energy consumption during production and probably have more when disposed of.
Minerals such as copper, nickel, and cadmium are needed to produce photovoltaic panels. For example, if we think about silver, its supply and demand for photovoltaic purposes are ~ 27 billion kg and 242 million kg (in 2017). Other minerals, such as lithium or silicon, also risk having a demand that exceeds supply today and in the future.
This is not really about these minerals being finite resources, because there are still many reserves. It is about the mining activities themselves. Indeed, the extraction and chemical separation process to obtain these minerals is highly polluting in many places, such as Chile, where toxic waste is not responsibly disposed of. Together with other impacts such as soil erosion or mercury pollution, mining activities can pollute the air, water, and land and harm local biodiversity and the population. Mitigation of these and other risks depends on local site management practices.
This is not really about these minerals being finite resources, because there are still many reserves. It is about the mining activities themselves. Indeed, the extraction and chemical separation process to obtain these minerals is highly polluting and in many places, such as Chile, toxic waste is not responsibly disposed of. Together with other impacts such as soil erosion or mercury pollution, mining activities can pollute the air, water, and land and harm local biodiversity and the population. Mitigation of these and other risks depends on local site management practices.
Advantages of solar energy – the power of solar panels
Despite the cost of producing solar panels, according to one study, after 5.23 years of electricity production, they will compensate for the energy used to produce the system itself. Moreover, according to one source, solar panels have a financial payback period of 19.3 to 34.4 years, depending on the applied rate of return energy from renewable sources.
Also, studies support the fact that the production of electricity using photovoltaic solar panels is more sustainable than electricity powered by fossil fuels. However, these calculations depend on the region of production, because, for example, the carbon footprint in a plate produced in China can be up to twice as large as in plates produced in Europe.
This is about the efficiency of the applied production methods.
However, solar PV technologies are small and can be used anywhere in the world with relatively low operating and maintenance costs. As for the problems around the end of the life of solar panels, as the industry grows, so will the locations for recycling. Players in the industry will probably feel encouraged to find new solutions to improve their business efficiency. The good news is that some materials, such as aluminum, lead, and copper, need less energy to be recycled compared to primary extraction.
Positive energy with negative sides
Based on the above, a clear conclusion is imposed that solar energy is not perfect. The production of photovoltaic panels consumes energy and requires limited minerals from the Earth that have sharp extraction effects.
The panels also produce electricity only during peak hours, ie. when they get over 1000 watts of photovoltaic power. This means that solar panels can produce electricity for an average of 4 hours to 6.5 hours a day, even if it is sunny all day.
It is a very commendable idea that solar PV technology reduces carbon emissions by powering mines and mineral processing sites, as is the case in Australia or South Africa. Tighter regulations and good governance practices are also key to reducing the risks associated with mining activities. Also, the development of the recycling industry of all types of materials is a crucial step in reducing the impact of mining and, therefore, the solar energy industry.
In the end, solar energy is easier to install anywhere in the world and it is becoming more affordable. If companies and countries want to fulfill their promises to reduce greenhouse gases, it is important to continue to increase their renewable energy sources and create incentives for the development of the solar or wind industry. However, it is important to consider their side effects and try to mitigate them so that solving one problem does not mean creating another.