There is a lot of information about solar panels, but not all of it is quite so accurate. You might have heard that solar isn’t so good for the environment, or even that it is worse for the environment than fossil fuels.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: solar panels are absolutely not worse for the environment than fossil fuels. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find scientific evidence to the contrary from a reputable source.
That being said, you might wonder how solar panels specifically help the environment. And that’s what we’ll cover in this article.
The Obvious: No CO2 Emissions (During Operation)
The most obvious way solar panels help the environment is by not emitting CO2 to produce power. In other words, there may be some CO2 emitted during manufacturing, but not after installation. Once the panels are installed, they will continue to produce carbon-free power for years–or even decades.
However, it’s not enough to simply say that solar panels don’t emit CO2 after they’re installed. To understand their real benefit, we should consider how much CO2 is needed to produce an average solar array vs. how much CO2 is used by the average fossil fuel-powered home over 20 or 25 years.
This seems complicated; fortunately, there are already studies that can help. For example, one study finds that the lifetime CO2 equivalent for solar is 6g power kWh. For coal, that number comes in at 109g, and for gas, 78g. In other words, the lifetime CO2 emissions for coal are 18 times higher than that of solar panels.
Yes, we do have to remember that solar panels have other life-cycle processes to consider, such as manufacturing and disposal. However, even when we take those into consideration, solar produces substantially less CO2 than fossil fuel-powered operations. Even if you add innovations like carbon capture, fossil fuels simply can’t compete with solar when it comes to CO2 emissions.
Reducing Extractive Processes
Another big benefit of solar panels is reducing extractive processes. What do I mean by this? Namely the ability to cut back on processes such as coal mining, including mountaintop removal mining. When it comes to oil, there are potentially very damaging extractive processes such as arctic drilling.
Of course, no one here is saying solar panels are perfect. For example, solar panels may require the mining of materials such as quartz, which has its own environmental impact. However, once again, the impact is mostly during manufacturing. But solar panels can continue to produce energy for 20 to 25 years, during which no environmentally harmful work is needed.
And there’s something else we haven’t considered: many of the materials used in solar panels are recyclable. And even if you can’t reuse all of the materials used in them, that’s a big difference from fossil fuels, where there is obviously no recycling going on.
So while solar panel manufacturing may have an impact in the beginning, the manufacturing process is much less damaging in the long run.
Improving Air Quality
Because solar panels produce much less CO2 during their lifetime than fossil fuels, it’s inevitable that they also improve air quality. How do we know this? Well, let’s consider how air quality can decline. This generally happens when there is an increase in particulate matter, also known as PM2.5.
It’s not difficult to understand where particulate matter comes from. We saw this in the US in particular in places like Los Angeles in the 20th century. The cause? Many things, of course, but one of the biggest is a lot of cars. Specifically fossil fuel-powered or internal-combustion engine (ICE) cars, which emit CO2.
The problem isn’t as bad as it used to be in the US, but it persists in many parts of the world. It’s easy to see this on sites like waqi.info, which is a real-time map of air quality around the world. The site lets you see several different types of pollutants, but one of them is PM2.5.
The worst air quality in the world is currently in China and India generally, which have the largest populations in the world. They also have massive amounts of manufacturing and automobile traffic, which leads to huge amounts of CO2 emissions.
As we continue to switch from a fossil fuel-heavy economy to one with more renewable energy, these particulates will naturally begin to drop. They are already lower in the US since the country is not as dense and we don’t have as much fossil fuel-heavy manufacturing as China does.
Nevertheless, we still have CO2 emissions of our own, and adding more solar panel will continue to drive these numbers down. And when that happens, air quality will naturally improve.
Decentralizing The Grid
Another benefit of solar panels (and of renewables in general) is decentralizing the grid. The way I like to think about this is that they generate power on-site. This aspect of solar is highly beneficial because it means you don’t have to rely on people transporting the fuel to you.
And when your fuel source doesn’t have to be transported to you every day, you eliminate another source of CO2. Most semi trucks and tanker trucks are still running on fossil fuels and that will probably continue for years.
As an added benefit of generating power on-site, solar panels make it easier to create power in remote areas. This could be beneficial not only to rural areas but perhaps more so to indigenous communities. These communities are normally under-served, and solar power can help overcome that issue.
Indeed, solar opens up a whole new world of possibilities. It can allow us to create communal, “micro-grids” that don’t require us to depend on massive utility companies. That can create more redundancy and resiliency as well. In other words, power outages won’t necessarily mean thousands of people are without power, as we saw with the Texas power grid.
How Do Solar Panels Help The Environment? The Bottom Line
Solar panels help the environment in a number of ways. Of course, the most obvious benefit is that they reduce CO2 emissions because they have no emissions when generating power. Plus, they cut back on extractive processes.
The other two big benefits are improving air quality and decentralizing the grid.
So, as you can see, solar panels help the environment in a number of ways. If that is your goal, solar panels are a great option.