This page may contain affiliate links, please check out our disclosure policy here.
Many people in the world are turning against solar panels because they believe that solar panels use a lot of energy which still causes long term damage to the environment.
People maintain that solar panels produce hazardous waste and fragile materials during construction.
Solar panels can be bad for the environment in two ways. After a useful life of 25 to 30 years, they are difficult to recycle and may be stored as waste, which is bad for the environment. Solar panel production also uses a lot of energy, which mostly comes from fossil fuels.
However, studies don’t show any indication that solar panels cause any harm to the Earth when they are in use, apart from the problem of waste storage. In fact, many studies show how much more efficient they are compared to other forms of power such as fossil fuels.
- Why are solar panels bad for the environment?
- Are solar panels really environmentally friendly?
- What materials are solar panels made of?
- How is a solar panel made?
- What are the negative effects of solar panels?
- What happens to solar panels when they die?
- What is the lifespan of solar panels?
- Can solar panels be made without fossil fuels?
- Are old solar panels recycled presently?
- Conclusion: How bad are solar panels for the environment?
Why are solar panels bad for the environment?
One of the big problem is that solar panels need a lot of fossil fuel energy to create them, so they do not offer any long term solution to the world’s energy problem.
It’s just they are cleaner for the environment at the moment. One solution could be to re-use or recycle existing solar panels, but this isn’t as easy as it seems.
Video – Recycling Solar Panels – A Good Strategy For The Environment
Are solar panels really environmentally friendly?
Solar panels are a great way to save the environment and your wallet while generating your own clean energy. Unfortunately, sometimes when solar panels are taken out of commission, it can have a negative effect on the environment.
Solar recycling is an environmentally-friendly approach that takes old solar cells from these systems and uses it as raw material for new solar panels and other related products.
By doing so, you can help to reduce hazardous waste in landfills by diverting this material from local dumps, which of course is better for the planet in general.
However, recycling solar panels is an expensive process, and not all of the material can be salvaged.
What materials are solar panels made of?
The cells that power solar panels are mostly made of silicon. Silicon is one of the most common elements on the planet, and it is in abundance, but it doesn’t mean to say it’s usable.
In order to be used in solar cells, silicon must have a very high purity level. This leaves a large portion of the silicon that is mined from the earth unusable for solar applications.
The silicon has to go through a refining process that separates the chemical impurities from the silicon crystals and leaves high-purity crystals of silicon. This refined silicon is then used in the manufacture of solar cells.
In fact, the rest of the solar panel consists of aluminium and glass, which are very easy to recycle, and various grades of epoxy and plastic compounds – these are more difficult to recycle.
Some companies, like PCcycle.org, are getting great results recycling up to 95% of the more common materials that go into making a solar system These are:
- heavy plastics
However, there are other compounds that are little more than trace elements and these can get released both in the initial production process and also when the panels are de-commissioned – see table below:
Table: Do solar panels contain toxic materials? Constituent parts
Easily Recycled? Into What Form?
Is it toxic?
Medium - melted and re-formed into silicon slugs
Easy - reformed into glass for other products
Easy - remelted and extruded into new frames
Easy - melted and reformed into wires and contacts
Easy - melted and reformed into electrical connectors
Easy, if in metallic form (very small amount in panels)
Yes, over time, cumulative
Copper Indium Selenide
Cadmium Gallium (di)Selenide
Copper Indium Gallium (di)Selenide
No - Production stage by-product
While most of the active ingredients are easily recyclable, there’s an uncomfortable amount of heavy metal compounds that are not.
Some of the epoxy-type ingredients are recycled into energy, which is another way of saying ‘burn them’. It’s essential to control the smoke residue from such operations.
How is a solar panel made?
Solar cells are created by placing a thin layer of purified silicon under a glass cover. The solar cells themselves are either grown from a pure silicon, or they are cut and polished from raw silicon.
Depending on the manufacturer, different technologies are used in the production of solar cells. These include manufacturing techniques such as vacuum deposition and sputtering.
In monocrystalline solar panels, the thin layer of silicon is cut from a tubular ingot into small squares and used to form a series of vertical rows, which creates a complete panel of 36 or more cells.
What are the negative effects of solar panels?
Solar panels can have a negative effect on the environment if they are taken out of commission or are improperly disposed of.
It is important to recycle solar cells in order to reduce hazardous waste in landfills. One way to properly dispose of solar cells is by using them as raw material for new panels and other products.
What happens to solar panels when they die?
When solar panels die, they won’t make enough electricity from the power grid.
In fact, solar panels don’t die but produce less and less energy over time. When the cells stop producing less then 60% energy, then they are deemed to be dead.
It is rare that solar panels will become so damaged that they are unusable. If this happens, then you should contact a company that provides recycling services in your area, and it will replace your solar cells for you at a reduced cost.
What is the lifespan of solar panels?
Solar panels will last from 20 to 30 years, depending on the manufacturer and technology used. In fact, they can go on generating useful energy for up to 50 years.
There are also ways to extend the lifespan of solar panels. Just like cars and other devices, regular maintenance can make the system last even longer.
The panels will run at optimum efficiency if they are placed in a location that gets a lot of sunlight during the day, such as a rooftop or external wall.
Why do solar panels produce less power over time?
The actual solar cells degrade in performance due to several factors. The whole panels flex under environmental conditions, like wind and temperature extremes.
Silicon crystals are neither mineral or metallic, but a cross between the two. Nevertheless, like rocks they contract and expand, which loosens the lattice and reduces their efficiency.
The tiny connections linking the small cells also degrade. The overall effect is to lose about 0.8% of solar output watts per year.
Lastly, UV rays break down the lattice structure gradually making the PV effect less effective.
Can solar panels be made without fossil fuels?
Solar panels cannot be made without fossil fuels. While it is possible to extract silicon from the ground and create solar cells, the process is very expensive and energy intensive.
This is the great paradox: we need fossil fuel energy to create renewable energy devices such as solar panels and wind turbines.
Some countries are trying to develop renewable energy infrastructure without relying on fossil fuels, but it is proving to be impossible.
In fact, the production of solar cells relies on fossil fuel energy more than any other traditional power generation source. If this was not true, we would have reached 100% renewable energy by now.
So what does this mean for solar panels? It means that they will always have a negative effect on the environment in terms of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
For example, electric cars are touted as using nothing but green energy, but in fact the overall carbon foot-print is similar to that of a conventional car.
In fact, the production of solar panels runs much more off fossil fuels than it does on renewable energy provided by solar panels or wind turbines.
Solar panels are also not very efficient in terms of electricity generation. They don’t work during the night, and they are only about 20% efficient when they do generate electricity.
We need to remember that they don’t store enough energy to run our entire homes for a whole day without any backup energy sources. Batteries also need fossil fuels to work, and they do not run without electricity.
The main benefit of solar panels is that they are sustainable in the long term. However, the energy they generate is sustainable and will never disappear from the world’s markets, only its abundance will decrease over time.
Are old solar panels recycled presently?
It is possible to recycle older solar panels and use them again. However, this practice is not yet fully popular because the solar panels are not efficient enough to be used for electricity generation.
As of 2017 there are still plenty of old solar panels (as old as 20 years) in storage at recycling facilities in Pittsburgh and other cities around the world.
There are some companies such as pvcycle.org which are making great strides in solar panel recycling. They have achieved almost 97% success in recycling everything from old panels, but energy expense is still the enemy.
What countries produce most solar panels?
China produces 75% of the world’s solar cells and 90% of its photovoltaic modules. Other top producers include the United States, Japan, and Germany.
Why is silicon used to make solar panels?
Solar panels are made using silicon, which is one of the most abundant non-renewable resources on Earth. It is also a very cheap renewable resource, so producers do not have to worry too much about price volatility.
Other materials used in solar panels include polycrystalline silicon and monocrystalline silicon. Other sources sometimes used include copper compounds, gallium arsenide, indium gallium selenide and cadmium telluride.
Conclusion: How bad are solar panels for the environment?
The solar industry has come so far in the last 40 years that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without photovoltaics.
The technology is now everywhere, from the panels on rooftops and parking lots, to cells powering our laptops and phones. But for all its benefits, the sector remains an environmental time bomb.
Solar panels are made from silicon — the second-most abundant element on earth — but it takes 1.5 tons of raw material to make a single megawatt of solar panels, and most of that silicon comes from quartz sand.
That’s a problem because silicon mining is a highly energy-intensive process that involves crushing quartz rocks and draining them in acids, which leaves behind toxic waste in rivers. The same goes for the rare earth metals that are also used in solar panel production.