The current push towards green energy has solar panels at the forefront and the argument is that they do not harm the environment like coal, gas, nuclear, and oil plants do. But do solar panels harm the environment just as much or even worse than the methods that they are replacing? This is a tough question to answer and in reality it can only be debated.
No one is willing to seriously look at the question without fear of being accused of hating the environment. However this is a legitimate question and it deserves to be answered. In order to go about answering this question we have to look at some pretty complicated concepts. First of all let's establish what the old style power plants do to harm the environment.
Aside from nuclear waste nuclear power plants don't pollute as much as other power plants. However coal, oil, and even natural gas still generate air and water pollution in various degrees with natural gas being the cleanest of the group. This is why solar panels and solar power plants became the highlight of activity when it was announced that they were finally practical for everyday use.
The main attraction to solar power is that it generates no air or water pollution to speak of. There's no environmental contamination if there's an accident and there's very little risk of the plant exploding. Ground pollution is virtually none as far as power generation is concerned but there is a basic amount of pollution for the plant itself. Every building ever built requires that a certain amount of grass land or other natural terrain be removed for its construction.
Therefore every building, even a solar power plant produces a low amount of ground pollution from a technical point of view. As far as individual panels go they produce no ground pollution as they are mounted on your home. So essentially they produce no pollution when in operation; however they do produce pollution when manufactured.
Like everything else a solar panel needs to be made in a factory and the process of forging the panels creates pollution. A majority of factories are powered by dirty power plants therefore solar panels have already generated coal, oil, or gas pollution for the time that it took to make them. Add into account the packaging that was also made in a factory as well as any other material production and you have pollution directly related to the panel.
Then you have to factor in the pollution generated by the trucks and planes that get the panels to the stores for selling and you have even more pollution to heap onto the panel. After all is said and done and you've considered all that goes into making and transporting solar panels then you have a significant amount of pollution. However it is lower than the operation of a coal plant for 10 years.
So are solar panels harmful to the environment? The answer is technically a yes. While they produce no pollution while generating power the initial manufacturing and delivery pollution is still significant. However most panels will operate for 5 to 15 years which offsets the pollution they generate when they're made. Regardless the argument is still a very hot and heavily debated topic amongst people on both sides of the argument.