The manufacturing of solar panels is still an emerging industry. Solar panels are used to tap solar energy, which is a renewable energy source. Given that our non-renewable sources like fossil fuels are running out, it is important to tap wind, water and solar power, which is abundant and freely available as well as friendly to the environment.
Solar energy has many advantages, such as reducing our dependence on conventional electricity obtained from the national electric grid, which generates energy by burning coal. Solar power is enough to meet the electricity requirements of a household and is also easy on the pocket. Solar panels do not require regular maintenance or care either. They just work fine.
It also decreases an individual’s carbon footprint. A massive shift to solar energy would have a drastic impact on the environment. It would slow down climate change and reduce pollution and global warming.
Given the numerous benefits of solar panels, we might think they are the solution to all our problems; however, it is not so. Studies show that though solar energy itself is a boon to the planet, the manufacturing process of solar panels is a bane.
The International Renewable Energy Agency report found that about 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste were generated globally in 2016. The international agency has estimated that it could touch 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
Solar panels have many harmful effects on the environment. I will shed light on some of these aspects in this article.
The production process of solar panels- A polluting activity
The photovoltaic cells used in solar panels take up many resources in their manufacture. Large amounts of water, raw material, fossil fuels, especially coal etc., go into the making of solar panels. The facilities which make these components release huge greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, which causes global warming and ozone layer depletion. So, it is evident that the production process of solar panels drains the resources and is a polluting activity.
Causes water pollution
Solar panel production also utilises Hydrofluoric acid and sodium hydroxide, which release toxic substances and chemical waste after being used. These materials come under environmental regulations regarding the disposal of their residue. Most of these regulations are flouted by manufacturing companies who dump this wastewater into nearby water bodies.
Industrial units manufacturing these solar panels need safety gear and strict regulations for the protection of the workers involved in the process. However, many factories are hardly concerned about the health and welfare of workers employed there. Some units do not even provide them with basic safety measures.
Air Pollution and cause of respiratory diseases
Research has shown that during the production of solar panels, silicon particles are given out by industries into the atmosphere. These toxic fumes cause a disease called Silicosis among people who live in the vicinity of the manufacturing unit.
It also causes acute respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer.
Solar panels are made up of rare metals and minerals which are mined from the earth. Photovoltaic cells utilise 19 of the rare metals. Due to solar panels production, there has been an increased demand for these metals, which means intensive mining would be required.
Mining itself puts a strain on the planet. It threatens a region’s biodiversity, harms local communities and their culture, disturbs the ecological balance and also causes soil erosion. Extensive mining over a long period can cause the land to become agriculturally unproductive and barren. It also increases the risk of landslides in the area. It even pollutes the nearby water bodies from the acidic waste that it generates.
Despite these drawbacks, mining continues in many parts of the developing world. It is a hazardous activity; however, companies pay no heed to its high environmental cost to meet the consumer’s demands for the latest technology and make more solar panels. There should be a balance, and new alternatives should be looked for instead of incessantly mining the earth.
Figures show that if mining for metals continues at this pace, then there won’t be sufficient indium left, which is a major component of solar panel production. What would we do then? This is an important question because we don’t realise that today’s wastage is tomorrow’s shortage.
So, for now, the few solar panels that are not operational continue to rust or are sent to the minuscule recycling units that exist in the developed world. The rest end up in landfills in poor countries. It causes environmental degradation as there are toxic chemicals found in solar panels which pollute the soil as well as nearby water sources. Poor communities living near these landfills and dependent on selling metal scraps for livelihood often bear the brunt of these activities.
The countries of the developing world are not equipped to deal with solar waste. German scientists at Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics have stated that poor countries are at a greater risk. Countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have become e-waste dump destinations.
The United Nations Environment Program report has found that around 90% of electronic waste is illegally smuggled and dumped in poor nations.
Also, solar panels are made of glass but also comprise Cadmium and Lead, which are hazardous substances and extra care and the additional cost would be needed to recycle them and separate them from the other components and impurities. Cadmium can be washed by rainwater and can lead to serious health issues among people living near these landfills.
Destruction of Natural Habitat
Solar panels installed at homes take up the roof area. However, large solar power projects take up many hectares of land. When solar panels are installed in these areas, the land cannot be used for cultivation or grazing.
This adversely impacts the region’s plant and animal species along with the native communities who are, in most cases, forced to move out of their homes.
In Kau, there were proposals to cut down Ohio trees spread over 19 hectares to install solar panels; however, it wasn’t supported by locals and the native environmentalists.
Ward Lambert, a former supporter of solar power plants, said that the authorities decided to buy land at a higher elevation that had more vegetation compared to land at a lower elevation.
Also, a wire fence was put up near the solar panels to prevent animals from coming near them. But some animals were injured when they accidentally brushed through it. Many trees were cut to install these panels. This highlights the possibility of habitat destruction and deforestation in Hawaii, where the government is increasingly investing in solar power.
The technology for tapping solar energy came into vogue in the 1970s in the West. An average solar panel or a solar plant can work efficiently for 25 years. Also, the first solar panel manufacturing plants came up in the early 2000s. Going by this calculation, there are not many dysfunctional solar panels and plants available. Hence this is not economically beneficial, so not many companies have thought of investing in technology for solar panel recycling. However, in the next two to three decades, we could hear some discussion on this topic.
Many countries are taking successful strides towards recycling solar panels. One such example is California.
The government of California is investing in technology regarding the diversion of solar panels from landfills and recycling them into useful products. This can be seen as a welcome move. However, they faced issues regarding the classification of solar waste components as hazardous or not.
The authorities are concerned about recycling solar panel components as a tornado in 2015 ruptured 200,000 solar modules at southern California solar farm Desert Sunlight.
The broken panels were washed away with water and got mixed into soil and rocks. These modules were made of cadmium, and they failed the hazardous waste test. Recovering and recycling them was a cumbersome process, but about 70% of modules were sent for recycling, and they are now installed in new panels, said one of the workers at the solar farm Desert Sunlight.
Many environmental experts underline the importance of recycling. The International Renewable Energy Agency stated that if all the precious metals used in making solar panels are recycled and completely absorbed by the economy, then their value would exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.
Solar panels are essential for taping solar power, but making changes in the manufacturing process can go a long way. This requires the stakeholders to come together to make solar panels a truly sustainable product. Governments need to put strict regulations in place to keep the manufacturers in check. International Organisations like the UN need to be more strict and put penalties on countries that do not follow international e-waste disposal norms. As environmentally conscious citizens, we too can raise awareness about the same and put pressure on governments and companies to take the environmental concerns into account.
Though solar energy is called a clean and green source, tapping this resource raises environmental concerns. We should also take into consideration that not all solar power plants generate enough electricity. The efficiency of solar panels depends upon the amount of sunlight a region receives annually. So, solar plants may be more beneficial in some areas, whereas, in others, the cost of installing them might exceed the benefits. All these pros and cons should be kept in mind.