Solar energy is sustainable, but solar panels are not. Solar energy is captured using panels manufactured at 2000ºC made using metals that have limited supply (Chen et al., 2019). It is a sad truth that the carbon footprints not generated using solar energy are offset by the amount of carbon footprints left behind in the process of manufacturing and disposing of solar panels. This article aims to look into the environmental impact of solar panels and to further highlight the importance of using life cycle analysis in green technology.
Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product by taking account of the raw materials used in manufacturing, the impact of the product on humans and the ecology among several other determining factors (Hill, 2013). The LCA methodology has been used for decades as a primary tool for assessing a technology or a product as environmentally sustainable for sustainable development (Brusseau, 2019).
More often than not, life-cycle assessment is ignored or overlooked when one portion of the analysis is “green”. In other words, every stage of the cycle is looked at in isolation of the next. Unfortunately, this may not prove beneficial in the long run. It is crucial that the entire technology is assessed holistically to understand its impact on the environment. What is “green” in one part of the cycle may not be sufficient to negate the environmental damage the entire technology, innovation or product can cause to the planet.
In the case of solar energy, or the energy from the sun that can be used as an alternative to energy produced from fossil fuels is confronted with inadequate understanding of the technology used in collecting the energy from the sun.
The technology that has been developed to capture solar energy has failed to appreciate the environmental hazards of processing a photovoltaic cell. In other words, every technology or product has a life cycle, and looking solely from one beneficial angle would do more harm than good. This is precisely what happened with photovoltaic cells. Even though the aspect of solar energy is sustainable, the life cycle of the technology from creating a solar panel to getting rid of the waste from the technology is ignored creating a mindset among people that solar panels are ‘green’ enough.
Manufacturing a product at 2000ºC requires tons of energy. With the present status of technological advancement, it is not fossil free to create such an environment for building solar panels (Chen et al., 2019). Secondly, at the end of its useful life, only a small portion of it can be recycled. The usage of rare earth materials like copper, nickel and cadmium for manufacturing solar cells created geopolitical tension due to the scarcity of the resource and this dependence on chemicals can also trigger chemical pollution (Mulvaney, 2014). The mining of these metals (silver, lithium, silicon etc), regardless of their scarcity, is in itself a very unsustainable process.
Thus, solar energy is a renewable source of energy with its own set of downsides when it comes to extracting the same. It is undeniable that they are a renewable resource, but more technical advancements need to be made in order to make the whole process from manufacturing till disposing, eco-friendly and sustainable.
Role of governments
As much as solar energies are beneficial, solving the issue of reducing the dependence on fossil fuels should not result in the creation of new problems like waste management and chemical pollution. (Gonçalves, 2019). More science and research should aim towards addressing green technology by looking into the life-cycle analysis.
The role governments could play in mitigating the side effects of using solar panels or any other alternative technology that is often considered “green” should be from the perspective of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Before issuing the patenting license for green technology, governments could take the initiative to ensure that the entities seeking the same have gone through the LCA of the products or technology. Eventhough it may raise the standard or bar for science and technology, which may further disincentivize companies and individuals from investing in green technology, it would at least help in creating quality technology that truly aims to address the global challenges of climate change and global warming. It would help break myths and will prevent the creation of new problems arising from resolving one.
Brusseau, M. L. (2019). Chapter 32 – Sustainable Development and Other Solutions to Pollution and Global Change. Environmental and Pollution Science (Third Edition), 585-603. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-814719-1.00032-X
Chen, C., Milne, C., Carlquist, K., & Paulos, B. (2019, January 31). Solar energy is green. Solar panels are not. AI can revolutionise their design. Energy Post. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://energypost.eu/solar-energy-is-green-solar-panels-are-not-ai-can-revolutionise-their-design/
Gonçalves, A. (2019, February 7). Solar Energy Is The Future. Right. But Is It Really 100% Green And Sustainable? Youmatter. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://youmatter.world/en/solar-energy-green-sustainable-27596/
Hill, J. (2013). Life Cycle Analysis of Biofuels. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (Second Edition), 627-630. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-384719-5.00365-8 Mulvaney, D. (2014). Solar Energy Isn’t Always As Green As You Think. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved March 18, 2022, from https://spectrum.ieee.org/solar-energy-isnt-always-as-green-as-you-think