Is Solar Energy Really Green and Sustainable?
Solar is a renowned clean energy source, but some claim it’s not Eco-friendly. Let’s dispel the myths and discuss the environmental impact of solar energy.
Most people want to protect the planet, which means more of us want to use renewable sources of energy like solar power. With an average annual growth rate of 50%, solar energy is experiencing a major surge in popularity in green circles.1 Why? The answer is threefold:
- The price of solar panels has fallen over the past decade
- The solar industry’s sheer economic power
- Solar’s squeaky-clean reputation as a reliable renewable energy source
That said, it’s not uncommon to hear people claim solar energy isn’t as environmentally friendly as it is presented to be. While we admit that solar energy isn’t perfect, we do believe the green energy source has the power to transform the energy industry. Chariot Energy regularly conducts and shares research about solar energy technology and then implements that knowledge in our plans and services.
Despite what detractors might think, we want to ensure solar becomes even cleaner over time – and we’ll show you how that works.
Solar is One of the Cleanest Energy Sources Available Today
As the influence and impact of solar power grow, scientists and manufacturers around the world actively aspire to create even better, more sustainable solar energy technology. Solar power is one of the most environmentally-friendly energy sources.
Examining the Environmental Benefits and Challenges of Solar Energy What Are Solar Panels Made Of?
The traditional process of manufacturing a solar panel begins with quartz, a very common mineral that can be found right in your home (if you have granite countertops)! Comprised of oxygen and silicon atoms, researchers discovered that this mineral can be converted into pure silicon for use as a semiconductor in solar panels to generate electricity.
Solar manufacturers historically mined quartz to supply the silicon for their solar panels. However, the mining of quartz crystal exposes miners to silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling tiny bits of silica from the ore.2 As a result, the solar industry is gradually moving away from quartz mining and toward quartz-rich sand.
Both quartz-rich sand and mined quartz can be refined into the same metallurgical-grade silicon for solar panels. At Chariot Energy, our solar panels are made exclusively from quartz-rich sand. In fact, one of our mottos is “From sand to solar!” This process ensures our solar panels never put people at risk of silicosis from mining.
The Challenges of Manufacturing Solar Panels
Here’s the challenge: in order to make metallurgical-grade silicon usable for capturing light, that quartz-rich sand must first be converted into polysilicon – another form of silicon with a different atomic structure. The chemical reaction that creates polysilicon produces a byproduct called silicon tetrachloride. If it isn’t disposed of properly, that new chemical can cause soil acidification and emit harmful fumes. Thankfully, scientists figured out how to recycle silicon tetrachloride back into polysilicon and reuse it in the production of even more solar panels!
Still, researchers continually look to improve this process and make it even more sustainable. China – where a growing portion of solar panels are made – has set regulations for manufacturers to recycle at least 98.5% of silicon tetrachloride waste.3 Moreover, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, are experimenting with alternative production methods that can avoid silicon tetrachloride altogether.4 With any luck, both of these strategies will result in a substantial reduction of waste – which will increase the stature of solar power as an eco-friendly source of power.
There’s an additional challenge: after polysilicon is purified, it’s formed into bricks then sliced into thin wafers, which comprise the “panels” in solar panels. Hydrofluoric acid (among other chemicals) are used to clean and texturize the panels to maximize light intake. While cleaning and maximizing the surface area is completely safe, like any chemical improperly disposed of, hydrofluoric acid can have a negative environmental impact.
Alternative Processes Currently in Development
While both the use of hydrofluoric acid and cadmium are being addressed through new technology and regulatory efforts, the future of solar panels will likely entail a switch to safer chemicals. For example, researchers at Rohm & Haas Electronic Materials, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, have discovered that sodium hydroxide (NaOH), a safer and easier-to-use alternative, can be used instead of hydrofluoric acid. And since cadmium is toxic to plants, animals and micro-organisms, some manufacturers have switched to benign zinc sulfide instead.
Ultimately, even though chemicals have been around since the earliest days in the solar industry, the overall trend for regulators and researchers entails working together to first find better ways to dispose of these chemicals and to then use safer alternatives. Such challenges are innately present in all sorts of energy production – not just solar – so advancing the technology we use will have enormous potential in transforming the entire renewable energy industry.