Written by Christel Schultz
Ancient civilizations used the sun as a source of heat and light. We are not entirely different in today’s world. Solar power may be the best energy alternative to fossil fuels available on our planet. Solar energy is 100% renewable, free, and sustainable without any human input. The key is to harness that energy in a manner that meets current needs without worsening environmental issues in the process.
Solar Technology, Production and Use
Solar technologies are generally either photovoltaic (PV) solar cells or concentrating solar power (CSP) plants or farms. The solar panels commonly seen on residential and commercial structures, for example, are PV solar cells. The PV cells convert sunlight into electricity.
Several hazardous materials and large volumes of water are used to clean the cell surface and etch away silicon layers. The manufacturing process can also generate greenhouse gases. After four months of use, the clean solar power created is estimated to compensate for the greenhouse gases released during production.
At CSP plants, mirrors collect and concentrate solar energy to power engines or turbines that generate electricity. The concentrated thermal energy can be stored for use when needed.
The size of the respective PV or CSP system influences the potential for environmental impacts. Large systems require a great amount of space. The total area needed will vary depending on site conditions and specific system requirements. Projects of this scale may affect local habitats and adjoining property use. The volume of water consumption significantly increases as well. Available water resources must be carefully evaluated in advance.
An alternative dry etching technology may soon become available based on the European Union (EU) funded SOLNOWAT project. The dry process is more efficient and less costly. The chemistry does not produce greenhouse gases, and the resulting darker cell absorbs more sunlight. The United States Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) also encourages research and development of solar technologies that increase efficiency and reduce cost. One major SETO focus is the storage of solar energy for large on-demand supply. This could be especially helpful during adverse weather conditions or following storm damage like that resulting from strong hurricanes. Overall, the global goal is to make solar energy an available, financially feasible option for the general public.
For more practical knowledge and applications of solar energy, click here.
Recycling and Disposal
The solar industry has been operating since at least the 1970s. However, the popularity of solar energy has increased significantly over the past decade. The installation costs currently remain elevated, but the typical lifespan of quality solar energy products is 25-30 years. Due to increasing popularity, it’s anticipated that more solar products will reach the end of their lifespan in the next few decades. Cheaper, low-grade, and less efficient versions have also entered the solar market to address demand. These products may only last a fraction of that time. Additionally, spikes in disposal volume result when storms impact large solar farms, for example. The issue of large scale recycling and disposal may therefore be more imminent.
Solar energy products tend to go to landfills once expired. The products may contain heavy metals that leach out as a result of rainfall. This needs to be addressed. However, today’s recycling market is not necessarily profitable. The level of effort involved in dismantling panels can exceed the value of recovered materials. Recycling may become mandatory to address growing environmental concerns. Meanwhile, industry leaders, manufacturers, and government bodies are working together to make recycling a more viable option.
What Does this Mean for You?
It’s no secret that an alternative to fossil fuels is needed. As a global community, we are aware of this. There may not be a single, definitive answer for everyone. Evaluate your situation, educate yourself on fuel and energy options, and make realistic changes in your life. Together we can make a better tomorrow.