Environmental Benefits of Solar
Why PV is Important to the Environment
Solar electric systems-also known as photovoltaic(PV)systems-have very little impact on the environment, making them one of the cleanest power-generating technologies available. While they’re operating, PV systems produce no air pollution, hazardous waste, or noise, and they require no transportable fuels. Because of these benefits, PV can play an important role in mitigating environmental problems like these:
Ground-level air pollution has severe health and environmental effects and contributes to visibility problems in scenic areas. Traditional power sources are the largest contributor to this pollution; in contrast, solar power produces no air pollution. Find out more about PV and air pollution.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Cambria Office Building was designed to be highly energy efficient and fit into its surroundings with little impact on the environment. Here, an engineer examines the 17.2-kilowatt PV system on the roof, which supplies some of the building’s power needs. Applying a concept called integrated design, the design team minimized the energy use and pollution that result both from the production of building materials and the use of the building over its lifetime.
Global warming is causing a rise in sea levels, and this leads to a loss of coastal wetlands, erosion of shorelines, and increased flooding in coastal areas. Local and regional climate shifts can also have severe impacts on ecosystems and agriculture. Solar power produces no greenhouse gases, so it does not contribute to global warming. Find out more about PV and global warming.
Clean Energy Payback
Energy experts are evaluating the “energy payback” of PV systems – the time it takes a PV system to generate enough zero-emissions energy to equal the energy used to produce it. Find out more about “clean energy paybacks.”
Manufacturing and Production Implications
A variety of chemicals are used to produce PV cells. Some PV systems use small amounts of toxic chemicals such as cadmium and selenium. Using these chemicals causes PV factories to generate a small amount of hazardous waste, which is disposed of in accordance with local, state, and federal environmental laws. In terms of safety and health, simple protective and administrative measures effectively protect those who work on PV. In terms of the environment, PV production produces small amounts of waste materials, but it is minimal relative to emissions from conventional energy sources. Find out more about toxic and hazardous chemicals used in PV production.
PV Panel Disposal and Recycling
Because some toxic chemicals are used in making PV panels, disposal at the end of their useful life is another potential environmental issue. Now, only a small volume of PV panels is disposed of each year, so this is currently a minor issue. But the industry is already looking ahead toward recycling methods for future PV panels. Find out more about PV panel disposal and recycling.
Of course, no form of energy production is completely free of effects on the environment. As with any consumer product, the raw materials for PV systems must be shipped to factories, and completed products must be shipped from factories to consumers. In many cases, components may also be shipped from one factory to another for assembly. Transporting PV materials, components, and final products uses some energy and produces some air pollution and greenhouse gases, in addition to contributing slightly to traffic and noise problems.
Some energy is also used in manufacturing PV systems. However, efforts to minimize manufacturing costs and increase output are also reducing the amount of energy used to manufacture each PV system. Find out more about energy use in PV manufacturing and production.