I’ve always wanted to know more about Solar Panels since everything you hear on the surface level about them is always positive. For instance, most people associate with them being environmentally friendly because what’s a better natural and unlimited resource than the Sun? After doing a little deep dive I’ve found the answer to not be so simple.
Solar Panels are currently not as environmentally friendly as we think they are. However, the concept is still a work in progress heading in the right direction, and over time with improvements, it does have the potential to be eco-friendly.
In this post, we’ll learn how they work, if they help reduce carbon emissions, and some pros and cons of their eco-friendliness.
How Do Solar Panels Work
Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic panels, look blue or black with grid lines. A solar cell makes up a solar panel and a collection of solar panels makes up Solar Arrays, but we just know them as solar panels.
Within each panel, there are many layers. Starting from the top you usually have glass, followed by an anti-reflection coating, then the metal grid, silicon, and finally a metal plate.
When the sun shines, it produces these waves called photons that will get captured by the panels which are then converted into electrons. The electrons pass through the panels and convert to Direct Current (DC) electricity, then it gets sent to an inverter which converts it to Alternating Current (AC) power, which is the power we know and use for our homes.
I don’t know how to explain science very well, so check out this video for a better explanation of how they work!
How Solar Panels Help Reduce Carbon Emissions
The current way to get electricity is to burn fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and gas. I’ve also written about the consequences of electricity wastage you can check out for more information on that. The current way is outdated and harmful to the environment and humans.
The main problem is that burning these fossil fuels create toxic fumes that are dangerous to human health and contribute to climate change. Carbon emissions or carbon dioxide emissions are the main toxic fumes that are the source of the problem we want to eliminate. Here is where Solar Panels come in.
Solar Panels rely on on the sun, not fossil fuels as the source to generate electricity. So when they are in your possession, installed, and put to use, they are carbon neutral. However, it’s the manufacturing of these Solar Panels that is the hot topic.
The process from start to finish to make the panels is not yet carbon neutral. The material is quartz, and that requires mining and then processing at high temperatures to make silicon (the semiconductors), during that process a chemical reaction occurs and creates tetrachloride, which if not disposed of correctly can cause soil acidification and emit those harmful fumes we don’t want. Hydrofluoric acid and Sodium Hydroxide are also used to clean the panels for performance as well and these are also not known to be toxic. (Chariot Energy)
There is a metric called Energy Payback Time (EPBT) to measure the length of time it takes a solar panel to generate the amount of energy equal to what it took to create it. Right now it’s roughly four years, but with improvement over time, the goal is to shorten that time to as little as possible.
So the dilemma here, making and delivering the panels can cause harm, but if the amount of harm they cause outweighs the amount of time they perform (20-30 years) would that be so bad? Compared to another 20-30 years of burning fossil fuels.
Concerns Regarding Solar Panels
We’ve already established that manufacturing them won’t be eco-friendly. Additionally, there are other things to consider as well concerning your home and the environmental impact of these.
They have really gained popularity within the last decade and that’s mainly because prices for them have dropped. Money is a big driver for some people, so something as expensive as these still may be a long way to go before it becomes an option. It may save more money in the long run, but up front is hard to convince.
You can check out the Consumers Affairs chart to see what the average cost in your state is. After reviewing the average, the cost is still in the thousands, as low as $5,000 and up to $40,000 or more depending on how much you need or the size of your house.
It might not also work in every neighborhood. Most neighborhoods have a lot of trees, tall leafy trees will block sunlight. Older neighborhoods will have bigger and more trees. This can get tricky, do we draw the line to not chop down trees to install something environmentally friendly, because it’s not so environmentally friendly to chop down a tree. Something interesting to think about, or maybe just plant a new one if you chop one down.
On a global scale, it won’t work everywhere. Since the Sun is the main source, some places are cloudier more times of the year than others so they won’t get as much sunlight. On the reverse, apparently, too much sun can be damaging as well. Harsh weather can speed up wear and tear and shorten the lifespan of the panels.
Speaking of the lifespan of the panels. I don’t get why they don’t last forever, but it seems like nothing good ever does. Solar panels have a lifespan of about 20 – 30 years. This means all those panels you see will need to be trashed at some point and repurchased. The thousands of dollars you spent are not a one-time purchase. Solar panels can be recycled but they have to be taken apart first, that is if they even get recycled. Can you imagine an entire neighborhood where every house had solar panels and then eventually all of those panels have to be trashed? That’s a lot.
New and freshly installed panels will work better than panels that were installed 15 years ago. Would they be less effective by then? I wonder if it’s like a battery that closer to the end of its lifespan, it doesn’t hold a good charge anymore. I can see how frustrating that will be.
So overall, the manufacturing and materials used to make them, and then what happens to them at the end of their lifespan seem to be the two biggest problems. The process is still not perfect, but it is heading in the right direction.