Many people wonder if the manufacturing processes for photovoltaic solar modules and other PV equipment are harmful to the environment or particularly carbon intensive. There has also been a lot of negative press that photovoltaic solar panels can be toxic to the environment. Do the benefits of the energy generated from solar panels outweigh the harmful effects of the manufacturing process?
According to NREL (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), the truth is a PV polycrystalline module will produce enough clean power in about four years to offset the energy required to manufacture it. You unfortunately have to consume a little energy to save a lot more. After a module is manufactured and installed, it will be a zero emissions energy source for the rest of its life. Over a 30 year life expectancy, almost 90% of the energy generated from the solar panel will be pollution free.
The major manufacturing input of PV modules is silicon, one of the most abundant elements on earth. It is easily gathered from the top of the earth’s crust and is available all over the world, eliminating the need to transport heavy raw materials. Purifying and crystallizing silicon is the most energy intensive process of manufacturing PV panels. Energy is also expelled when cutting silicon wafers, processing wafers into cells, and assembling cells into panels. The industry is moving towards recycling PV modules which will save energy in the reuse of silicon cells and metals.
In regards to the toxicity of solar panels, experts have been discussing the use of chemicals in the manufacturing process. As a result, the EPA has cited certain panels as toxic and has imposed regulations on employee safety when handling chemicals and the disposal of toxic materials. This has, in turn, made PV manufacturers more aware of risks and they have implemented standards to make the production safer.
A lot of the negative news you hear about solar is generated from incumbent energy producers. They want us to believe that our current energy infrastructure is the only logical answer when it is clearly not. From the first day a PV installation is turned on, it will create clean, green electricity. And, whatever the system generates will reduce its owner’s need to purchase “dirty” electricity. An average 5 kW solar electric installation in Massachusetts or Connecticut will produce an equivalent of 10 to 12 barrels of oil each year. This would save about 10,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, which would be similar to planting 20 mature trees annually or driving your car 7,000 miles less a year.