By Mirela Niculae

Solar energy is considered to be one of the best clean alternatives to fossil fuels nowadays, but is it really the friendliest option as far as the environment is concerned?

Energy experts say that using solar power decreases our carbon footprint, the mark each of us leaves on the environment through actions that require the use of fossil fuels, such as driving a gas-powered vehicle.

When we rely on electricity from the energy grid, which is powered by fossil fuels, we deepen our mark on the environment by polluting the air and accelerating global warming. Because solar energy harnesses the power of the sun, homes that run on solar energy do not have as large of an environmental impact.

How does solar energy help the planet?

What if the whole world went solar? What would that mean for the environment?

According to the US Department of Energy, the world consumption of energy is projected to reach 678 quadrillion Btu (or 715 exajoules) by 2030. The good news is that the sun can generate a lot more energy than that. Furthermore, according to calculations done by the Land Art Generator Initiative in 2009, a solar farm about the size of Spain would be enough to power up the entire world.

Converting the entire world to solar energy would lower the global temperature by roughly 0.04 degrees, as the panels would absorb more of the sun’s heat than the Earth itself. This could help reverse climate change.

Rows of solar panels on a solar farm
A solar farm the size of Spain could power the entire planet (Credit: pedrosala/Shutterstock)

Sadly, the cost of the whole world going solar would be enormous, and at the current state of technology, we can’t store large amounts of the obtained energy. But, as the technology moves forward, we may be a lot closer to this goal.

Does producing solar panels harm the environment?

The process of producing solar panels still has a way to go before it is as environmentally friendly as the energy the panels produce.

Solar panels are produced using quartz, silver, aluminum and copper, all of which need to be mined. Some of these materials can be obtained from recycled sources, but given the fast development of the photovoltaic industry in the last decade, new materials will have to be mined to keep up with demand.

Next, the raw materials are processed into electronic-grade silicone, which means heating them in a furnace and treating them with various chemicals. Once obtained, the silicone is further processed to obtain the solar cells, which will be fit into panel frames. In most cases, all these steps are powered by fossil fuel energy, which is why many people worry that panels are not as green as they’d like them to be.

But while panels require a lot of energy even before they can produce anything, but they have a very short energy payback time. For instance, poly-crystalline panels pay back the energy used to make them in as little as two years.

Close-up of a blue solar panel
Although solar panels require a lot of energy to reduce, they can offset that energy in as little as two years (Credit: kkays2/Shutterstock)

Yes, solar energy is good for the environment

So, after taking a look at fossil fuel energy production and the crystalline silicon photovoltaic industry, the main conclusion is that both produce pollutants and greenhouse gasses. However, solar panels are significantly less damaging to the environment in the long run, and if we continue developing it, the positive impact would be visible in as little as a few decades.