Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy

The sun is a great source of clean and green energy without much toxic substances or emissions that trigger global warming. Yet solar power does come with downsides, and there are certain environmental impacts of solar energy. In this post, we’ll look at all of them and get a better picture of where the industry stands today.


Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy

The environmental impacts of solar energy can vary greatly, and they depend mainly on the current tech in use. The solar power industry is built on 2 major industries, which are photovoltaic (PV) solar cells and concentrated solar plants (CSP). Each industry has its perks and issues, and such issues depend on the scale of the systems.

Let’s take a closer look at each downside of solar power.


Land Use

The impact of solar power depends on the sites of PVs and CSPs, and large-scale solar plants can raise concerns about land misuse. The land area to be used for a solar plant varies based on the type of equipment to be used, the contour of the land and the amount of sunlight gathered in the area.

Large-scale PV systems can use from 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt (MW), while CSPs can use from 4 to 16.5 acres per MW. Unlike other power plants, solar projects often don’t make it possible to share the land with other uses.

While land use can pose problems, it can be fixed. The impact can be lowered by setting them up at lower-quality sites like brownfields, abandoned mining lands or existing transport and transmission corridors. In addition, smaller-scale PV arrays can be built in homes and buildings.


Water Use

Solar PV cells don’t need to water to make power, but some water is needed to produce them. CSPs, like other thermal plants, need water for cooling. Most CSPs use cooling towers that withdraw between 600 and 650 gallons of water per MW-hour of power produced. And that’s a lot of water use.

While this is one of the major environmental impacts of solar energy, there are certain answers to this problem. Some CSP plants use once-through cooling that lowers total water usage. This is possible because water is not lost as steam. Other solar plants use dry cooling that can reduce water use by about 90%.


Toxic Substances

The process of making PV solar cells includes a number of toxic substances. Most of these harmful chemicals are used to clean and purify the surface of semiconductors. These include sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and acetone. And the amount and type of chemicals used depends on the type of cell, the amount of cleaning needed, and the size of the silicon wafer.

This is truly one of the most harmful environmental impacts of solar energy, and workers on solar cell factories face certain risks with inhaling silicon dust. In the US, laws are already in place to protect people from these work hazards and to set standards for proper disposal of harmful substances. Some companies impose incentives to ensure that toxic substances are recycled properly than thrown away.


Life-Cycle Global Warming Emissions

There are no emissions in producing solar power, but there are emissions linked to the other stages of the solar life-cycle. Such discharge is seen in the making, transport, maintenance and dismantling of PV cells and CSPs.

Solar life-cycle discharge for PV systems can range from 0.07 to 0.18 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. As for CSPs, life-cycle discharge range from 0.08 to 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Despite this, solar power makes much less life-cycle discharge than other power sources like natural gas and coal.


Power Cost

The amount of power that is used to make panels is also one of the environmental impacts of solar energy to think about. It requires a lot of power to transform raw substances into usable PV cells. For example, quartz must be processed, cleaned and used along with other components.

Heating substances like quartz require very high heat, and a lot of up-front power is needed to combine multiple components. The whole process takes a lot of precision and effort.

There are major concerns surrounding the solar power industry. But overall, the downsides are minimal compared to its good uses. No power source is perfect, and despite the downsides of solar power, it is still a cleaner and greener source than others.