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Our sun is an unlimited energy resource that we can use to generate sustainable energy without necessarily polluting the planet with solid waste and greenhouse gases. Solar energy is one of the most eco-friendly resources we have today. However, the development of solar energy technologies and gadgets isn’t 100% clean.
In this post, we’ll discuss sustainability and the potential environmental impacts of solar energy to determine the sustainability of solar power.
What Is Sustainable Energy?
According to the United Nations, sustainability is the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources so that both present and future generations can meet their needs efficiently. Sustainable energy refers to finding clean, renewable energy sources that are potentially inexhaustible, unlike fossil fuels. Today, there are several forms of sustainable energy, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal, and bioenergy. Unfortunately, no energy is 100% sustainable, not yet anyway. However, solar energy is the closest we can get to a 100% sustainable energy resource.
How Solar Energy Qualifies as a Sustainable Resource
To qualify as sustainable, an energy source needs to balance environmental protection and mitigation, energy security, social equity, and economic development. Solar energy perfectly falls into this mix as it is an inexhaustible energy resource that solves the energy security problem. It leaves a significantly smaller carbon footprint than a conventional energy source. In terms of economic development, solar energy pays off in the long run and curbs the energy demand on the grid.
Many industries have switched to a PV solar or hybrid system to reduce carbon emissions and become self-sufficient. This way, they can contribute more to the economy in terms of products, services, and social work. Furthermore, PV solar systems are incredibly easy to set up and can be installed anywhere in the world. It is a relatively established technology that is seeing innovations every day, meaning the majority of the public is accustomed to seeing it around in homes, malls, highways, and offices.
Unlike fossil fuels, solar panels do not cause pollution by releasing greenhouse gases, which is another founding principle of sustainability. They sit idly on farms or rooftops without making any noise or dissipating heat. There are zero waste products from the clean electricity produced. According to the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, solar energy can solve global water shortage and clean the air, both qualities that can help economies and humanity significantly.
Lastly, the climate change problem due to global warming caused by carbon dioxide and other gases is heavily damaging our planet. As more people shift to solar energy, it makes it easier to clean the air and stabilize turbulent and unpredictable weather patterns around the world.
The Environmental Impact of Solar Energy
Solar energy is one of the cleanest energy resources we have today, especially when compared to coal, gas, and oil. While the energy itself is clean, harnessing isn’t 100% clean or zero emissions. As a result, several environmental and economic impacts question solar energy’s sustainability. While solar panels may not release any carbon dioxide, their manufacturing involves almost the same amount of pollution and energy consumption. Overall, the environmental impact of solar energy depends on the technology and scale of production/utilization. Let’s discuss which factors challenge the sustainability of solar power:
Many materials required to produce PV solar panels, like nickel, silver, lithium, silicon, cadmium, selenium, and copper are non-sustainable. These materials are all used to create the technologies used to extract solar energy and will eventually be exhausted over time since they’re all finite.
PV solar farms or plants generally require a large area. And depending on the location, they can cause some serious problems, such as habitat inundation, harm to wildlife, greenhouse emissions, and land degradation. In contrast, residential-scale PV solar systems require little space, depending on the energy requirement. Overall, the land requirements for installation vary due to different solar energy technologies, site topography, and geographical conditions.
For instance, setting a solar farm near the equator or in the Middle East will typically require fewer solar panels to produce the same energy than in Canada or Northern Europe due to more sunlight hours in the latter regions. Secondly, the land used for solar panels cannot be used for other purposes, unlike wind turbines.
PV solar panels do not require water to generate heat or electricity. However, their manufacturing processes involve heavy use of water, especially during silicon purification. Moreover, concentration solar plants (CSPs) require water not only for moving the engine or turbine but also for cooling purposes. Depending on the location, water might be a scarce resource which may raise some social and economical concerns, especially in states or cities that see minimum rainfall every year. So, there is a tradeoff to be made.
During solar panels production, manufacturers use several toxic or hazardous materials to clean and purify the silicon surface. These chemicals include acetone, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and nitric acid.
Life-Cycle Global Warming Emissions
Even though solar panels don’t emit any emissions that contribute to global warming during electricity production, there are many emissions during the complete solar life-cycle, which includes raw material mining and extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, dismantlement, and even recycling. The mining and recycling processes alone emit nearly 60 to 70% of the total emissions.
High Initial Costs
The high initial cost of installing solar power for residential or commercial purposes is high. As a result, the clean energy resource has not become as widespread as you might expect. Even though solar energy pays for itself in the long run, many people aren’t able to afford the high cost of panels, inverters, and batteries. However, with the addition of solar-powered gadgets, the technology is rapidly becoming more cost-effective, especially when compared to wind, tidal, bioenergy, and hydroelectric power, which are generally inaccessible on a small scale.
If we talk about solar power, we usually think about photovoltaic panels on rooftops, however it’s not the only application of the sun’s energy, read our article on how we use solar energy if you want to know more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about solar energy and its sustainability:
1. What toxic materials are in solar panels?
There are several toxic chemicals found in solar panels, like polyvinyl fluoride, lithium, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, Tin, cadmium telluride, silicon tetrachloride, hexafluoroethane, and lead.
2. Is solar energy zero-emission?
While solar energy is not as damaging as fossil fuel energies, it is not zero-emission, 100% green, or clean. Production of panels and solar system installation also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
3. Do solar farms harm wildlife?
Large-scale solar farms require a lot of lands. This land is home to the wildlife which are all affected during the large-scale installation. As a consequence, they bring about different environmental challenges, such as habitat inundation and physical harm.
4. What are the non-sustainable materials in solar panels?
All metals used to produce solar panels are non-sustainable. Secondly, the production of a solar panel requires caustic, non-sustainable chemicals like hydrofluoric acid and sodium hydroxide. The process also requires electricity, which usually comes from conventional energy sources like fossil fuels.
5. Do solar panels kill birds?
Photovoltaic panels rarely kill birds. In case of large installations birds may collide with the panels likely because they mistake it for water surface. Concentrated solar power (CSP) facilities have however solar beams with a temperature of 800 to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. When insects, bats, and birds fly through these highly concentrated solar beams, they are instantly killed by the heat.
6. Why is Solar Power Sustainable?
Solar energy is sustainable because first, it is an inexhaustible energy resource. Secondly, unlike fossil fuels and other conventional energy sources, it leaves behind a much smaller carbon footprint and reduces the global energy demand as users become more self-sufficient.
7. Why is Solar Energy the Best Renewable Energy?
Solar energy is considered the best renewable energy because it is among the few renewable sources that are readily available in small-scale for consumption. There are hundreds of solar products consumers can easily buy from the market to power their devices or heat water or their space without polluting the environment.
Also check out our article where we discuss in detail if solar panels are recyclable.
Our sun is expected to keep firing for billions of years to come so it’s safe to call solar energy a sustainable resource. The only challenge is to find ways to extract, store, and use solar energy in more eco-friendly ways. With the innovative technologies and gadgets coming in every day, our current generation might even witness the widespread acceptance and utilization of solar energy for residential and commercial purposes.
Lastly, solar panels can be set up anywhere in the world and are gradually becoming more affordable than they were in the last decade. So, if anyone asks you, “is solar energy sustainable?”, you can boldly say yes, it is!
You can also figure out how beneficial solar power can be if you read our piece on how much money solar panels can save.