e are witnessing a revolution that's reshaping our perception of how electricity is generated. People around the world keep switching to solar considering it the best alternative to fossil fuels, which have been the primary energy source for more than a century.
Solar is the new oil, but still not perfect
Solar growth prospects are stronger than ever. According to a McKinsey report, the number of photovoltaic systems installed worldwide is set to increase fivefold by 2050. Moreover, solar will have accounted for 43% of global power generation by then, thus becoming the major player in the global energy mix.
The success of solar energy can be attributed to its steadily declining prices and positive impact on the environment, although some doubt the latter. There are concerns over PV panel disposal, land use, and hazardous materials involved in manufacturing. Let us look at the main benefits and shortcomings to find out if solar is actually the best replacement for fossil fuels.
Advantages of solar energy
Much has been said about the advantages of solar energy for our planet. Let's highlight the main ones and see why solar is considered green and sustainable.
Helps fight climate change
Fossil fuels are the main reason for climate change since they release greenhouse gases when burned. Their buildup in our atmosphere is the main reason why global temperatures keep rising. Oil, coal, and natural gas together make up over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of all CO2 emissions.
Transitioning to solar energy, on the other hand, can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both residential panels and utility-scale solar plants do not produce greenhouse gases and therefore have a good effect on the environment.
Reduces carbon footprint
Solar energy can significantly reduce your carbon footprint - the total amount of lifestyle-associated CO2 emissions. Per kWh of electricity produced, rooftop solar panels emit about 41 grams of CO2 on a life-cycle basis, and large-scale systems emit 48 grams. For comparison, oil emits 970 grams and coal around 204 grams of carbon dioxide.
So exactly how much can you lower your carbon footprint by replacing electricity from the grid with energy from solar panels? To figure this out, let’s look at how much carbon dioxide traditional power generation creates. For example, for every 1 kWh of electricity generated in the US, around 0.850 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. An American consumer with a medium-sized 5 kWh solar system produces 7,000 kWh per year on average. By multiplying the two numbers together we get 5,950. This means you will be able to save almost 6,000 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions every year!
Helps tackle air contamination
Air contamination is another great environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of the world’s population currently breathes air that's not in line with the recommended pollution levels. And the biggest culprit again is traditional energy production. Burning fossil fuels is responsible for emitting not only carbon dioxide but other toxic substances such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. These gases rise into the atmosphere, where they react with water to form acid rain. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the formation of smog, which can severely affect human health.
But here again solar proved to be the key to solving the problem. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) generating 1000 kWh of energy with solar panels cuts emissions by approximately 8 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 5 pounds of nitrogen oxide.
Decreases the water use problem
This advantage isn’t as obvious as the previous ones, but it means a lot for protecting the environment. The world's freshwater resources are rapidly diminishing, while electricity generation usually requires significant water consumption to extract raw materials, run turbines, clean the panels, etc.
But solar does not have this drawback, as PV panels produce electricity with no need for cooling or any other operating processes. According to a report by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), solar panels use two hundred times less water to generate a unit of electricity than conventional power plants.
Accelerates the transition from fossil fuels
Fossil fuels, as we have already found out, are extremely dangerous for our planet. Solar offers a decent alternative, not only due to its lower environmental footprint but also due to its financial benefit. According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar became the cheapest among all energy sources. Even though it mostly refers to large-scale projects, residential PV panels are getting cheaper every year as well. Due to this, more and more homeowners switch to solar as the most affordable alternative to fossil fuels.
Disadvantages of solar energy
Solar panels, despite a large number of advantages, are still not without drawbacks. Let’s break them down to see if solar energy pollution is really a thing.
Impacts local ecosystems
One of the biggest environmental concerns when it comes to utility-scale solar plants is land use and the effect it has on the ecosystem. Extensive land clearing is required for the construction of solar parks, which leads to soil disturbance, changes to drainage channels, and soil erosion. Furthermore, it affects biodiversity and leads to the loss of natural habitats.
This problem can be resolved by careful site planning and environmental management. At present, solar companies do their best to minimize disturbance from humans or equipment.
Uses toxic chemicals
The solar panel production process requires the use of harmful materials. They include lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals. Some thin-film panels can also contain gallium and indium. However, evidence from multiple studies has shown that having solar panels installed on your property doesn’t involve any health risks.
Poses a recycling problem
A solar boom that happened in the last few decades is about to cause a recycling problem. Most solar panels last around 30 years, which means in the near future we will have to face the challenge of PV panel disposal.
Basically, solar panels can be recycled: they are manufactured using glass, plastic, and aluminum that are easily recyclable. But these components have to be previously separated, which is quite a long and complicated process. In addition to this, the toxic substances contained in solar panels require a careful approach and a more complicated technology.
So are solar panels really a win for the environment?
Generally speaking, the advantages of PV panels far outweigh their disadvantages, so the impacts of solar energy are largely positive. Although solar power raises some challenges, it still remains by far the most beneficial and viable alternative to fossil fuels.