People often ask the question, “Is solar energy renewable?” Whether this question is the result of misinformation campaigns or genuine human curiosity, it’s one that shouldn’t be ignored. After all, if solar energy is really as great as those environmentalists say it is, shouldn’t it be everywhere?
Well, the reasons solar energy is not yet ubiquitous are complicated, to say the least. What’s less complicated is determining whether solar energy is renewable, although there are still some things to consider.
Is Solar Energy Renewable?
At its most basic level, it’s easy to see that solar energy is renewable. Of course, solar energy comes from the sun, which makes it renewable. Sure, the sun won’t be around forever—but when the sun dies, so, too, while any and all life on earth. Thus, it is renewable because it is impossible to deplete it while our planet can still support life.
That is in clear opposition to the way fossil fuels work. After all, fossil fuels can take millions of years to form. Although we still have many years of crude oil supply left, it won’t last forever. At current levels of consumption, there is about 47 years’ worth of crude oil left. Thus, if we deplete all of those reserves, we would have no more crude oil left. We can’t simply cook up more; once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Yes, it’s that simple. While fossil fuels take millions of years to form, the sun will (hopefully) continue to shine for billions of years. This clearly means solar (and other renewables) is the energy source of the future. Even if we don’t quickly transition to renewables, we will have to use them regardless since there is effectively a finite supply of fossil fuels.
But Aren’t Solar Panels Toxic? And Other Questions
The questions you will inevitably see related to solar power and other renewables tend to focus on the materials used in their manufacturing. While we shouldn’t dismiss these questions entirely, they tend to be somewhat out of context.
For example, minerals such as quartz may be needed for panel manufacturing, and perhaps lithium if you use a battery backup to store your solar power. In addition to the potential environmental impact of mining, there is of course the environmental impact of the manufacturing itself. Yes, it does require energy and perhaps even some emissions.
However, when people ask questions about the environmental impacts of solar panels, they seem to ignore the fact that fossil fuel production requires constant drilling, sometimes in areas such as the arctic, which are particularly sensitive to extraction.
And there are other obvious ways while it simply doesn’t make sense to bring up environmental impacts of renewables, particularly when you consider that the alternative is fossil fuels. Why? Here are a couple of reasons:
Renewables Have No Emissions After Manufacturing
Sure, there may be some impact on the environment during the manufacturing process. But renewable energy equipment can last a very long time. For instance, solar panels typically have a warranty that guarantees 90% performance for 10 years and 80% performance for 20 years. And you may even be able to squeeze a few more years out of them.
During that entire time, you are reaping the benefits of zero-emission power. There is simply no comparing that to fossil fuels, which have emissions all day, every day, every single time you burn them.
Indeed, studies have shown that solar panels only take a few months to break even in terms of the environmental impacts of manufacturing when compared to continuously burning fossil fuels. Sure, there may be up-and-coming technologies such as carbon capture, but that isn’t the same as recycling solar panels since you are only capturing the CO2.
Don’t Forget Recycling
Recycling has gotten a bad rap lately, perhaps because 91 percent of plastics aren’t recycled. However, plastics recycling is an issue because so much of it is single-use, meaning it can be in use for as little as a few minutes. On the other hand, solar panels are usually in use for several years, so any amount of recycling is great.
And yes, many of the components that make up solar panels can be recycled. Those include glass and aluminum. Solar panels usually include glass, too, although that is not as easily recyclable as glass and aluminum.
Nevertheless, the point here is that solar panels contain several components that can be recycled. That’s in stark contrast to fossil fuels since they can’t be recycled whatsoever. Once they are burned, you have to go get more of them.
Even if renewable equipment needs some amount of new materials each time it is manufactured, that will still be much less than the 100% new materials needed when it comes to fossil fuels.
Is Solar Energy Renewable? The Bottom Line
You might hear claims about how solar energy is not renewable, or how it is worse for the environment than fossil fuels. While it’s impossible to know the reasons for which people say these things, there simply isn’t the evidence to back it up.
Solar energy comes from the sun, which will be around as long as life on planet earth will be. When the sun goes, so, too, does life as we know it. In contrast, there is only about 47 years worth of crude oil left, and it takes millions of years to form.
Plus, materials used to manufacture solar panels are recyclable. But with fossil fuels, there is simply no way to recycle them. Perhaps you can remove some CO2 from the atmosphere, but that isn’t quite the same as recycling.
In short, solar energy is indeed recyclable. That is not to say it has no environmental impacts, but solar panels continue to improve. And yet, the environmental impact is already far less than what we see with fossil fuels.