Are Solar Panels Good for the Environment?

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports, “Rapidly falling prices have made solar more affordable than ever”. Solar power is the standard for clean energy, especially in residential communities. However Environmental Progress (EP) reports solar power creates 300 times the toxic waste of nuclear energy. While solar power is the affordable future of clean energy, there are some important drawbacks this piece explores.

Environmental and Human Health Impact of Solar Power Production

Human health relating to the production of solar panels is interchangeable with the environment and earth’s many organisms. A study on heavy metals and living systems provided by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports on heavy metals that, “Excessive levels can be damaging to the organism. Other heavy metals such as mercury, plutonium, and lead are toxic metals that have no known vital or beneficial effect on organisms, and their accumulation over time in the bodies of animals can cause serious illness.”

PV panels are the primary source of solar power, especially in residential systems. These panels use silica mined from the earth’s crust. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), silica is the second most abundant element on earth. Taking silica from nature and transforming it into solar panels takes its toll relating to human exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) showed the health toll of silica on workers highlighting the dangers of silicosis, a lung disease caused by silica exposure. Over time, silicosis becomes chronic to acute. It may lead to debilitating symptoms and even death.

Mining silica produces little impact on the environment. According to Minerals Education Coalition, the mining of silica uses standard mining equipment in open pits or dredging. These practices result in minimal environmental impact. However, IEEE Spectrum reports the process of “turning metallurgical-grade silicon into a purer form called polysilicon—creates the very toxic compound silicon tetrachloride.” The waste of this method is reusable, but it is costly to do so.

Solar panels also contain heavy metals including chromium, cadmium, and lead. With improper disposal, these minerals can lead to environmental distress. Lead poisoning has taken center stage on the severe impact on the human body, especially in youth. Lead poisoning causes behavioral and physical health ailments. These include both neurological dysfunction and organ damage. Chromium poisoning presents with minor to moderate issues like dermatitis and pulmonary problems. Cadmium poisoning may lead to renal failure and is a known carcinogen.

Solar Power Material Waste

The average photovoltaic cell produces, with at least 80% power, for 20 or more years. According to SEIA, after the initial environmental production cost, the conventional PV solar cell makes up for its price within six years. This makes solar power a viable solution for clean energy.

Providing the average home with 100% energy requires 23-34 solar panels leading to a possible 78 million tons of waste by 2050. Most of this e-waste, glass along with aluminum from frames, also includes small amounts of metals like copper, cadmium, and lead. For now, there are few recycling programs in place, with exception to Europe. This may change because of the simplicity in the solar panel’s construction.

For now, Europe leads the way dealing with solar power product waste management. Europe requires solar companies to maintain plans for recycling and to reuse expired systems. These companies also must support proper waste management, when applicable.

The New Green Market: Solar Product Recycling

Created from glass and metal, solar panel materials break down easy. These byproducts separate and recycle into new projects or new solar panels. Fortunately, any undamaged solar panels are reusable with minor alterations. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports a potential $15 billion value in recovered materials. For now, there are few recycling programs in place, with exception to Europe. This may change because of the simplicity of solar panel composition and money-making potential (learn more about solar panel costs at PowerScout.com)

PV Cycle is a European organization providing e-waste solutions. This consists of breaking down solar panels into reusable products. Their process offers 95% reuse of the original solar panel product materials. E-waste management has money-making potential, as well as significant job creation. The prediction shows more companies like PV Cycle, as viable options.

Solar power remains a viable solution for clean energy. However, companies must continue vigilance in maintaining and researching environmentally sound production practices. They must also use materials that can withstand the test of time and elements. The best solar power producers consider the environment, including living and non-living elements, in moving forward with this clean energy option.