The solar industry is primed for growth. Solar power is the most abundant resource on Earth and is effectively unlimited. Low-carbon electricity generation must be increased substantially in the next decades if the U.K. wants to reach net-zero by 2050.
Alternative energy solutions help reduce greenhouse gasses and stabilize global temperatures. Questions are now being raised about the potential problems solar panels – or photovoltaic panels – create. With all things going green, how green are they really during production, or when they reach the end of their shelf life?
There have been many advancements in the technology used in solar panels, but there is still plenty of room to improve.
The efficiency rating of a solar panel refers to how much available energy the panel can convert into electricity, and at the moment, that’s sitting around 17-19%. That means 83-81% of the potential energy is going to waste. If experts could improve this efficiency, it would mean lower costs for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers because fewer panels would be needed for the same amount of power.
The intensity of solar has also been questioned, with the amount of energy provided by the sun varying by region and time of year. Even in sunny areas, the panels can only generate power for a maximum of 12 hours a day, with their efficiency peaking at midday. This leaves further room for improvement, whether with storage batteries or panels that follow the sun to extend energy production.
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As the industry expands, advancements come at a more rapid pace. The introduction of diamond wire resulted in thinner solar cells, making them cheaper to produce and transport. Passivated emitter rear-cell technology likewise delivers improvements by reflecting the unabsorbed light, converting more of it into power.
In one and a half hours, the sun’s energy that reaches Earth exceeds yearly worldwide energy consumption. However, one of the biggest concerns around solar is the land needed for large-scale operations. This could result in further habitat loss for plant and animal species.
With the impact of global warming on the environment, wild species extinction is already a significant concern and will only be exasperated. If experts can improve the efficiency of the technology, fewer panels would be needed, meaning less space used for large-scale operations.
The global community must also look at what goes into the production of the panels. This process often includes several toxic chemicals, which could pose health and safety risks and have negative environmental impacts. These chemicals include sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, methyl chloroform, and acetone.
Those involved in the development and production of solar infrastructure need to invest in improvements to the environmental impact of solar power to benefit humanity in the long run.
Even with all the advancements going into the production of solar panels, they must stay green at the end of their life cycles. If they are to be of genuine benefit to us environmentally, they cannot just be thrown in a landfill. Thankfully, solar panels are recyclable.
Solar panels are pretty sturdy, typically lasting 30-40 years. They have no moving parts and are generally easy to fix. So how does the solar recycling process work?
There are two main types of solar panels, and they require different recycling methods. Silicon-based solar panels, which make up the majority of panels used, are disassembled, with up to 95% of the metal and 95% of the glass parts being reused.
The remaining parts are heat-treated and used to make new silicon. On the other hand, thin-film panels are shredded and separated into solids and liquids. The results are roughly 95% of the semiconductor material and 90% of the glass being reused.
The recycling process is a very efficient, well-organized process that has significant benefits for the environment and the economy. It is estimated that, by 2050, solar panels will have a recoverable value of £11 billion, with more than 2 billion new panels made from recycled material.
With the need for renewable energy sources on the rise, solar is one of the most easily accessible options. The solar panel recycling process will ultimately help finance the solar industry’s future growth, creating employment opportunities and making the sector even greener.
by Shannon Flynn