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Environmental Impacts of Solar Power

Shidonna Raven Garden and Cook

Source: Union of Concerned Scientist

The sun provides a tremendous resource for generating clean and sustainable electricity without toxic pollution or global warming emissions.

The potential environmental impacts associated with solar power—land use and habitat loss, water use, and the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing—can vary greatly depending on the technology, which includes two broad categories: photovoltaic (PV) solar cells or concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP).

The scale of the system—ranging from small, distributed rooftop PV arrays to large utility-scale PV and CSP projects—also plays a significant role in the level of environmental impact.

Land use

Depending on their location, larger utility-scale solar facilities can raise concerns about land degradation and habitat loss. Total land area requirements varies depending on the technology, the topography of the site, and the intensity of the solar resource. Estimates for utility-scale PV systems range from 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt, while estimates for CSP facilities are between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt.

Unlike wind facilities, there is less opportunity for solar projects to share land with agricultural uses. However, land impacts from utility-scale solar systems can be minimized by siting them at lower-quality locations such as brownfields, abandoned mining land, or existing transportation and transmission corridors [12]. Smaller scale solar PV arrays, which can be built on homes or commercial buildings, also have minimal land use impact.

Water use

Solar PV cells do not use water for generating electricity. However, as in all manufacturing processes, some water is used to manufacture solar PV components.

Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP), like all thermal electric plants, require water for cooling. Water use depends on the plant design, plant location, and the type of cooling system.

CSP plants that use wet-recirculating technology with cooling towers withdraw between 600 and 650 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. CSP plants with once-through cooling technology have higher levels of water withdrawal, but lower total water consumption (because water is not lost as steam). Dry-cooling technology can reduce water use at CSP plants by approximately 90 percent [3]. However, the tradeoffs to these water savings are higher costs and lower efficiencies. In addition, dry-cooling technology is significantly less effective at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many of the regions in the United States that have the highest potential for solar energy also tend to be those with the driest climates, so careful consideration of these water tradeoffs is essential. (For more information, see How it Works: Water for Power Plant Cooling.)

Hazardous materials

The PV cell manufacturing process includes a number of hazardous materials, most of which are used to clean and purify the semiconductor surface. These chemicals, similar to those used in the general semiconductor industry, include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone. The amount and type of chemicals used depends on the type of cell, the amount of cleaning that is needed, and the size of silicon wafer [4].  Workers also face risks associated with inhaling silicon dust. Thus, PV manufactures must follow U.S. laws to ensure that workers are not harmed by exposure to these chemicals and that manufacturing waste products are disposed of properly.

Thin-film PV cells contain a number of more toxic materials than those used in traditional silicon photovoltaic cells, including gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, and cadmium-telluride[5]. If not handled and disposed of properly, these materials could pose serious environmental or public health threats. However, manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to ensure that these highly valuable and often rare materials are recycled rather than thrown away.

Life-cycle global warming emissions

While there are no global warming emissions associated with generating electricity from solar energy, there are emissions associated with other stages of the solar life-cycle, including manufacturing, materials transportation, installation, maintenance, and decommissioning and dismantlement. Most estimates of life-cycle emissions for photovoltaic systems are between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour.

Most estimates for concentrating solar power range from 0.08 to 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour. In both cases, this is far less than the lifecycle emission rates for natural gas (0.6-2 lbs of CO2E/kWh) and coal (1.4-3.6 lbs of CO2E/kWh) [6]. 


[1] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Renewable Energy at Mining Sites

[2, 3, 4] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2012. Renewable Electricity Futures Study. Hand, M.M.; Baldwin, S.; DeMeo, E.; Reilly, J.M.; Mai, T.; Arent, D.; Porro, G.; Meshek, M.; Sandor, D. eds. 4 vols. NREL/TP-6A20-52409. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

[5] National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Best Research-Cell Efficiencies.

[6] IPCC, 2011: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [O. Edenhofer, R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, K. Seyboth, P. Matschoss, S. Kadner, T. Zwickel, P. Eickemeier, G. Hansen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow (eds)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1075 pp. (Chapter 7 & 9).

What are the commercial implications of the solar panel industry? Why? Why not?

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