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Are Solar Panels Bad for the Environment?

Solar panels are hailed as a green energy source, but their environmental impact isn't zero. From manufacturing processes to recycling challenges, they carry a footprint. However, their ability to generate clean energy over decades often outweighs initial concerns. Considering the full lifecycle, are they truly eco-friendly? Join us as we explore the nuanced reality of solar panels' environmental effects.
Editorial Team
Editorial Team

Is there a dark side to solar panels? Not really. 

Solar panels produce green energy; which means, they draw on the solar radiation created by the sun and convert that into usable electricity. By producing electricity that can be used to power homes, solar panels help the economy reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and their high carbon emissions. In this way, solar panels are working to protect the planet and are a very good thing for the environment.

Learn how solar panels work and how they may help you produce solar energy to meet your needs. Here is a fair and honest look at solar power and the solar industry. 

What Happens to Solar Panels When They Are No Longer Usable?

Solar panels can last for decades, and in that time, they will generate electricity with zero carbon air emissions. That’s a major benefit. However, at some point, they will need to be replaced and left with solar panel waste. If not disposed of properly, solar panel waste can lead to a big landfill problem. They do not break down like traditional materials and their materials can be harmful to the environment.

The associated waste from solar panel systems needs to be recycled. With proper solar panel recycling, many of the components can be reused, helping to reduce the negative impact on the environment as a whole. That is a key alternative to simply disposing of solar panels at their end of life.

Another concern is that the solar photovoltaic market is growing rapidly, as noted by Energy.gov. As a result of this, there is no doubt going to be more people investing in solar panels and solar power in general, increasing the amount of solar panel materials being used and, eventually, recycled or sent to a landfill.

By 2050, the U.S. will have the second largest number of end of life panels around the globe. That is because it is estimated that 10 million total tons of panels will be at risk of being recycled or wasted. What happens with them, then?

The Cost of Solar Trash

There is a big need throughout the U.S. for new recycling infrastructure to be put into place to manage solar panels when they are no longer usable. That includes residential, commercial, and industrial panels, which can be much larger. If this does not happen, the hazardous waste produced by them will be a big factor in the planet's overall health. Greenhouse gas emissions from landfills could be a concern from old solar panels that are just tossed there.

There are also some valuable materials in old solar panels that can be reused to reduce their need for producing or sourcing them again, including copper indium gallium selenide. These products are needed for the manufacturing process, and like other renewable energy technologies, the more we can reuse these products instead of letting them land in the landfill, the better it is for the environment as a whole.

What Can You Do?

Discarded panels need to be recycled to get the true environmental benefits of solar panels and have truly clean energy. Broken panels and those wasted need to have a recycling process in place, and you can help. Like all electronic waste, the life cycle needs to have a process in place where products are broken down and reused. Right now, only a small fraction of the solar industry is doing this, and it is even lower in developing countries. Recognizing the environmental hazards here, be proactive not just with the reuse of the same panel or recycling to remove toxic materials but also with other consumer electronics. Protecting those raw materials is critical.

Frequently Asked Questions About Solar Panels

It is not uncommon for us to receive questions about solar panels and how they are used. Here are some common questions.

Do solar panels ruin the environment?

The solar panel manufacturing process can cause some loss of the benefits of solar power as a renewable energy if it is not done properly. Silicon solar panels, thin film solar panels, and all other forms can be recycled and reused to minimize hazardous waste by solar panel producers to offset this. That can help minimize solar waste. In this way, those valuable materials from thin film panels, like cadmium telluride, can be reused or disposed of in a safe manner.

Is solar really environmentally friendly?

Solar panels do have many positive benefits when it comes to energy generation, generating electricity without carbon emissions. From homes to industrial panels added to manufacturing locations, they will help to protect the environment by reducing a carbon footprint. That means that solar facilities that develop these products without producing greenhouse gases and that focus on recycling are contributing positively to clean energy.

Are you Ready to Install Solar Panels?

SmartSolar can help you. Learn more about how solar power can help to support your home’s needs and be good for the environment.

About the author
Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Our Editorial Team, made up of seasoned professionals, prioritizes accuracy and quality in every piece of content. With years of experience in journalism and publishing, we work diligently to deliver reliable and well-researched content to our readers.