Solar Panel Pollution: The Myth

As the threat of climate change becomes more and more of a reality, the push for mass renewable energy adoption is becoming more and more imperative.  There is extensive reputable research at our fingertips that very clearly outlines the environmental and financial benefits of solar energy, but there are a lot of skeptics out there looking to point out its imperfections in efforts to downplay the negativity around fossil fuels.


First thing’s first: Solar panels harness the sun’s rays to produce renewable energy – this power source produces ZERO carbon emissions and is proven to help slow the effects of climate change. Of course, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are associated in the manufacturing, transportation and installation of solar panels and its relevant equipment – like any manufacturing and installation process of a consumer product – but at the end of the day, nothing is completely “risk-free”. To help curve the negative effects associated with solar, environmental laws in the US and throughout the world have been advocated in efforts to regulate the use and disposal of these harmful materials.


Regardless of logistics, solar energy scientifically pollutes far less than its competing energy sources like coal and natural gas, and that statistic is improving with age. For every time solar installation capacity is doubled, the energy utilized to manufacture the panels themselves decreases by 12-13% while emissions drop by 17-24%.


The growing concern over solar panel pollution lies mainly within harmful toxins like cadium that can potentially leach into the soil with broken panels that aren’t properly discarded, and nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride that are associated with the actual production of the panels. Some panels are carelessly dropped in landfills, but steps have been taken worldwide to encourage recycling of panels once they break or are decommissioned.


Manufacturing companies are now legally bound to follow specific recycling guidelines to ensure the panels are not a burden on the environment, which would defeat the purpose of them in the first place.  If recycling protocols were not followed, up to 60 million tons of waste from PV panels would be in landfills by 2050 – but both major types (silicon and thin-film based) are confirmed as recyclable. PV recycling creates jobs and will help recover billions in value while producing new panels without having to harvest raw material. States like California have already taken steps to classify solar panels as “hazardous materials” for the purpose of ensuring the material cannot be thrown into landfills.


Another myth tacked onto pollution concerns referenced a “lack of production” in the technology, which is simply false. It’s correct to believe that solar panels do not produce electricity at night or when it’s cloudy – but when they receive ample sunlight, the panels will produce enough energy that can offset its lack of use when the sun goes down. Depending on the state, homeowners for example can either opt for energy storage (which allows a home to always operate on, ideally, 100% solar energy) or take advantage of net metering.


Net metering offers options to send extra energy into the grid when it’s not being used, which builds a bank of energy credits with the utility company that can be used when the panels aren’t producing. It’s important to note that solar panels work incredibly well when in the proper environment – so it’s not for everyone or every landscape – because production is related to the amount of direct sunlight that it can harness.


All in all, the positive far outweigh the negatives in regards to solar panel production and installation. In order to aggressively combat climate change, we need to increase adoption while advocating for the use of other renewable sources like wind and hydro. With proper disposal, pollution related to solar energy is minimal in comparison to dirtier methods of energy.