When it comes to solar power, it’s all about the “green.” As a full-service solar company, Crius Solar has spoken with thousands of potential solar energy adopters and overwhelmingly they want to either 1) save money ($-green) or 2) decrease their impact on the planet (eco-green). So, as Earth Day approaches, it seems like the right time to once and for all shed some light (as well as the cold, hard facts) on whether solar is as environmentally friendly as it seems.
Solar Power and Climate Change
Many scientists worldwide now agree that climate change is caused by an increase of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat and have increased significantly over the last 150 years as the result of human activities. In fact, in the U.S., electricity production (29% in 2015) generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the EPA, curbing electricity use is one way to bring those emissions down, as is making coal-fired power plants more energy-efficient. But perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective reduction opportunity lies in increasing the share of total electricity generated from renewable energy sources like solar power. Solar power is now cheaper than coal in some parts of the world. In less than a decade, it’s likely to be the lowest-cost option almost everywhere.
Solar also produces less lifecycle greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions than conventional fossil fuel energy sources. And while there may be some ghg emissions produced during the manufacturing and recycling of a solar system, the generation of energy from the solar system results in zero ghg emissions and zero environmental impact over its lifetime. This makes solar energy a potential low-cost solution to climate change and a key driver in transitioning the U.S. to a low-carbon, sustainable future.
Location, Location, Location
Of course, the way a solar system is manufactured and recycled can have a huge impact on the planet as well. And make no mistake — even though solar power is much more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, it still has a carbon footprint. The extent of that footprint depends a lot upon where system components are made. A recent study found that a solar panel manufactured in a country with weaker environmental standards would have to be in service for about 20-30 percent longer to compensate for the carbon-intensive energy used in its production. So when it comes to investigating your solar provider’s supply chain, remember the real estate agent’s credo: location, location, location!
Components from countries with robust regulations to protect workers and the environment will help ensure that your solar system is doing its best for the planet. In addition, as the solar industry itself works to implement global standards practices, there are a number of efforts underway to make solar panels greener and cheaper. From using solar cell materials that would otherwise end up in waste sites to finding alternative, less harmful chemicals for solar-cell manufacture, it’s clear that solar power will continue to become leaner and greener.
But what happens when it’s time for the sun to set on those dazzling PV panels? Solar photovoltaic systems, solar thermal and concentrating solar power technologies have a life expectancy of upwards of 30 years. Therefore, many solar products operating in the U.S. today have not yet reached the end of their useful life. When they do, their responsible disposal will be governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), as well as state policies that regulate waste. In addition, some solar companies already operate take-back and recycling programs as the U.S. solar industry finalizes a National PV Recycling Program.
As with any waste management strategy, every U.S. home- and business-owner has an important role to play. Just like those used paint cans, retiring solar panels must be laid to rest responsibly. Given that solar panel recycling is projected to be a $15 billion market by 2050, it’s a safe bet that U.S. solar users will soon be flooded with “cash for your trash” options. Regardless, it’s important to find out what services your solar provider offers (if any) for PV removal and disposal before it’s time to recycle them.
Who’s the Greenest?
If you’re among the millions of solar hopefuls who want to harness the power of the sun for environmental reasons, you may find it difficult to suss out which solar company is the greenest. In addition to information on where their solar system components are sourced, your provider should also offer insight into their corporate social responsibility practices. At Crius Solar for example, our colleagues receive up to four paid hours of community service each year to participate in volunteer clean-up events and charitable solar installations through the Crius Cares initiative. In addition, our family of brands helps U.S. consumers avoid billions of pounds of harmful CO2 emissions each year through the use of responsible energy products.
So if eco-green is your favorite color, it probably won’t matter that Earth Day is this Saturday, April 22. You’re likely planning for a better environment all year. If you are, make sure solar – and working with the right solar provider – is part of those plans.