Are photovoltaics truly environmentally friendly?
Unfortunately, solar power and renewable energy, as a whole, are often politicised or become the target of clickbait articles. It is sometimes claimed photovoltaics are a net negative for the environment.
This assertion is simply false, as studies show that modern photovoltaic panels produce enough clean energy to offset their total lifetime carbon emissions within just three years.
Considering the expected lifespan of a photovoltaic installation is at least 25 years, these installations will produce enough clean power to offset their environmental impact several times over.
It is important to remember that photovoltaics don’t release any emissions during operation, they don’t use water or generate waste, and they pose no threat to wildlife.
Solar power can be generated where it is used - the panels can be installed on land that is not arable, and when used in residential areas they can be mounted on rooftops, façades, parking lots and other locations where they don’t cause inconvenience.
The biggest challenge facing the industry is how to handle decommissioning and recycling of end-of-life and damaged panels.
Since 2012 solar panels are included in the European Union’s WEEE directive, which requires an 85% collection rate and 80% material recycling rate. Currently, the most advanced PV recycling plant in Europe, located in Rousset, in the Bouches-du-Rhône region of France, manages an impressive 94.7% material recovery rate - higher than almost any other product apart from soda cans!
Solar panels are mainly composed of glass, aluminium, and silicon-based semiconductor materials, with small amounts of various metals and other materials.
The glass and aluminium components, as well as the cables and junction boxes, are readily recyclable. It is also possible to recycle the encapsulant (EVA), however, the process is energy-intensive, meaning it is more environmentally friendly to use the encapsulant as a fuel source instead.
As the share of solar power increases, so will the associated e-waste, which would incentivise the construction of more recycling plants.
In addition to the tightening regulations on the industry, all major manufacturers strive to reduce the environmental impact of photovoltaic panel production as much as possible.
At the moment, photovoltaics are the best choice for producing clean energy, and further developments in efficiency, manufacturing and recycling will only improve their environmental characteristics.