Often hailed as the answer to our clean energy prayers, we seldom stop to think about how solar power might affect the environment. Solar power isn’t entirely without its environmental challenges, so we need to admit to them and then rise to the task of overcoming them if we’re to achieve a genuinely clean future.
The benefits are obvious, but…
Of course, gathering energy from the sun is way better than burning coal and gas to create electricity – there’s no question about this. But the solar panels don’t grow on trees (yet) and while we want solar power to proliferate, this may come at some costs.
The development and deployment of solar power systems can have several impacts on the environment. There’s the land use issue, the water use issue, as well as the effects on people working in conventional power stations.
The impact on land
Generating enough solar electricity to power a town needs a lot of panels, which in turn needs a lot of space. Where do the panels go? Do they go into a wilder area, or into a newly-reclaimed area? What could the land have been used for instead? How much energy will it take to install the solar farm and then to return the land to its original state in the future? Where does this energy come from? Constructing a solar farm still needs energy from “dirty” sources.
The impact on air, soil and water
Huge solar farms necessitate the clearing of massive tracts of land, which means changes to drainage channels and often an increase in erosion. If a farm uses a central tower collector system, there must be enough water to keep it cool, which can be a problem in sunny, arid areas.
The air quality can be affected by the building work itself, including the release of soil pathogens and aerosolised particulates that can end up in water bodies.
The socioeconomic impacts
The construction of a solar farm can change the socioeconomic nature of an area. If the solar farm is to be built somewhere remote, then the influx of new jobs and people can have a permanent effect on the region, meaning that more housing has to be built, as well as downstream services like cafes, doctor offices, new transport services and so on. While this can look great in the short-term, it may not be sustainable, leading to a ghost-town effect.
Where do solar panels go when they die?
Nowhere, right now. There are very few facilities for recycling solar panels and there aren’t enough panels to make it worthwhile just yet. Solar panels contain precious and rare metals like silver, gold, tellurium and iridium, so if these metals aren’t recovered and reused then there could be supply problems in the future.
It’s not just about the rare elements, either; most PV cells feature silicon, which is very abundant. However, making these silicon-based PV cells from scratch needs a lot of energy, which usually comes from coal. If each panel is made from raw resources, the carbon just mounts up. We need a strong, joined-up recycling infrastructure if we really want solar power to take its proper place in our future.