How Green Is Solar Energy Really?

Solar energy is pretty amazing. Its generation is emissions free, and it’s really cheap. But if something sounds too good to be true, there’s got to be a catch, right?
You need to make the solar panels that has a carbon footprint, but solar panels will constitute over double the tonnage of all of today’s global plastic waste.

Well, that all sounds like solar energy is not as green as a lot of us might think. Is that really true? We’ll take a look at three big criticisms solar energy faces, plus will tell you why you might be walking on old solar panels. And what all of this has to do with Breaking Bad. Let’s get going.


First, let’s take a look at solar energy’s impacts on the climate. Solar panels produce electricity without creating emissions, which sounds pretty awesome. But it’s also not the whole story. producing them in particular uses lots of energy. Raw materials have to be mined, transported, processed, then the whole thing has to be assembled. And as our economy is still largely run on fossil fuel, all this means greenhouse gas emissions.

But the question is, how much? And how much is that compared to other sources of energy? Well, to answer that, there’s a thing called lifecycle assessment. This is Gavin Heath, who has been studying this for many years. So we’ll just let him explain how it works.
On the context of electricity generation, the service that’s being provided is the generation of a kilowatt hour, the role of lifecycle assessment is to do as comprehensive and complete and an accounting of, for instance, the greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted that are attributable to that kilowatt hour.


The results of this, on average solar energy emits around 40 grams of co2 equivalent per kilowatt hour it produces, which is really, really low compared to fossil fuels, like natural gas at 500 grams, or coal at 1000. But then, again, SunPower does emit a little bit more co2 than wind power. What do we make of that? It shouldn’t really be a choice. At this point of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions between different yields. They all provide significant benefit when displacing.

What’s more is that solar energy has been becoming more and more efficient, which could further push down lifecycle emissions, and future, there might even be completely new solar technologies like perovskite modules. These promises to use less energy in production and to convert even more sunlight into electricity. And then there’s a kind of snowball effect, the more solar gets deployed, the cleaner it will become to produce even more. So yes, strictly speaking, solar energy isn’t completely emissions free, but it is already one of the climate friendliest energy sources we have. Next up, let’s take a look at what actually goes into making all these panels. To produce solar cells, you need quite a few chemical substances.

For example, the process of refining the silicone produces silicon tetrachloride. It can be recycled and then be used. But it’s not really clear whether manufacturers always do that. If it ends up in the water, it can have devastating effects on the environment and people’s health. Or take hydrofluoric acids, which is needed to clean the solar wafers during production. It’s a highly corrosive acids that needs to be handled very carefully. By the way, it’s the same stuff that Walt and Jesse use in Breaking Bad to dissolve the enemies. But that’s just a side note here. We have a lot of hazardous chemicals of concern that are in Houston to make solar panels.

This is Sheila Davis of the Silicon Valley toxics coalition. She developed the solar scorecard that ranks manufacturers by the sustainability. We don’t want to solve the climate problem at the expense of other important environmental issues like hazardous waste issues or resource issues, or chemical of issues that aren’t yet toxic issues. And that’s pretty much the problem with solar. So it is green, but it’s only green in one phase, we want to make sure it’s green throughout its lifecycle. Another problem is that depending on the type of solar cell and manufacturer hazardous materials like lead, cadmium or arsenic can end up in the modules.

But increasingly there are also alternatives. And one of the key components of planning safer alternatives is being able to perform what they call an alternative chemical assessment. And luckily right now We have the capacity to do this maybe 10 years ago, we might not. But now we have, you know, artificial intelligence, we have machine learning, we have Internet of Things, all these computer enabling technologies that allow us to more find alternatives, safer alternatives, much cheaper.

So yes, the chemicals needed to make solar cells are problematic, there really needs to be pressure on the industry to come up with alternatives, and make the switch once they find them. And finally, let’s take a look at where all these panels go to die. Solar panels lasts around 30 years, often even longer. But at some point, they reached the end of their life. As of now, the waste heap of discarded panels is still relatively low, about 250,000 metric tons.

But by 2050, it’s expected to grow up to 78 million metric tons that we more than 200. Empire State Buildings have old solar panels. You know, now it’s a, we can see that it’s going to be a problem that of course, in next 10 years or 15 years, there’s going to be a major crisis, where old panels will pile on to the mountains of E waste we are already struggling to deal with. The good news is that solar panels are recyclable, and it’s already being done mainly in the EU.

Governments here made it compulsory for manufacturers to make sure that use panels get recycled. facilities like this one already recovered a good chunk of the materials. But there’s also some bad news. The recovered silicon, for example, isn’t of high purity yet, which means we can’t really use it to make new solar panels. Instead, it goes into other stuff like shoe soles. And then there’s another problem. The cost of recycling is relatively high.

And that’s partially at least because there’s not yet that many modules to recycle. This means in places without legislation like USA or China, it’s still cheaper to throw out modules into landfills, including all the valuable materials that made with recycling needs to become profitable. Or we might have a real problem on our hands. There would be many, many, many solar panels that are led fueled, I cannot imagine that you lost the CEO of rosy solar French startup that’s come up with a new recycling process, and focuses on recovering the most valuable materials at high purity. Actually, the economic return at the class is not that high.

So we try to integrate also how much value that has to be recycled. Silicone is silver. Together, it’s about 3% of the total weight only. It has 70 or even more than 70% of the of the economic value. With our recycling methods, the company says these materials could be recovered into profits and then go back into making more solar panels. They’re currently working on opening the first plants at the end of 2022.

In principle, if we can really establish a circular economy, we will not need to, to to to redo our re manufacture or these several materials. So the good news is that solar panels can be recycled. The bad news is that lots of them aren’t yet. So what does all this mean? Well, yes, solar power is not entirely green. But that definitely doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on it. Its benefits are way too great for that. Instead, we should openly address these problems and figure out how we can fix them.

Now we’d like to hear your thoughts on this. How should we deal with them not so green sides of green technologies? Let us know in the comments. And if you like this video, please hit subscribe because we have more coming out for you every Friday.


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