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Solar panels: yes or no?

Thu, 25 Feb 2021 20:31:24 +0000

Solar panels: yes or no?

I’ve been dreaming of living off grid for years, and solar has always been an indisputable component of my eco-friendly, living-alone-in-the-woods vision.

But the more I researched, the more I started wondering: is this really the most sustainable option? How about making a solar panel? Do solar panels require more energy to manufacture than they produce?

While solar is a great source of clean energy, manufacturing solar panels can have a negative environmental impact.

When purchasing a new item, I like to consider not only how sustainable that particular product is once I have it, but also how sustainable it is to make it and to get it to me.

As for solar panels, parameters like manufacturing, recycling, chemical use, water use, waste generation and mining activities needs to be taken into consideration to know how environmentally sustainable solar energy is.

The most common material to make solar panels is silicon crystals. Silicon needs to be mined and purified before it’s turned into PV (photovoltaic) cells, and the process of mining releases carbon monoxide as a byproduct. On the flip side, silicon is recyclable and it is the most abundant material on earth after oxygen.

Other materials that are used in the manufacturing of solar panels are aluminium, copper, glass and plastic.

Bauxite, the rock aluminium is extracted from, also needs to be mined. Extraction, processing and fabrication all take lots of energy, and some of the air and water emissions can be hazardous. The good news is, aluminium is very durable and recyclable infinitely. Recycling aluminium requires less energy than producing it in the first place.

Copper and glass follow a similar pattern: somehow detrimental for the environment, yet easily recyclable. 

Plastic is of course more tricky, as it is one of the least sustainable material out there, only partially recyclable and responsible for a decent amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

But at the end of the day, manufacturing any new product will use resources and produce waste. That’s why I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture and think of whether solar power is worth it in the long run.

The useful lifespan of a solar panel is estimated to be 25 to 30 years. Everything considered, it takes 3 to 4 years to offset the energy used for manufacturing it, meaning that within that period of time a solar panel will create as much energy as was consumed in its initial production and installation. After that, solar panels are officially “carbon negative” and will provide clean solar energy for years.
(Also note that solar panels will still work after those 25ish years, only not as efficiently.)

So, based on my research, the answer is: YES. Solar is worth it. 

However, I encourage you to consider your entire living situation before you decide to go for solar power: for example, when I was planning to move into a tiny cabin, my original idea was to still plug into the grid, but try to reduce the amount of power I’d require.

Now that I’m moving into a bus (oh! Had I mentioned that yet?), solar sounded like the best choice, since I’ll be on the move a bit more and I want to be as independent from power sources as possible.

I would also suggest that you look into recycling options, as well as research manufacturers whose production policies are transparent about their environmental impact. And buy second hand whenever possible.

Realistically, I still know next to nothing when it comes to sustainable energy sources. I’ve only been in close contact with a solar panel for like two weeks. So please shout at me if I’ve said anything wrong or if you know anything I should know. I am very excited about learning more about solar and to hear everyone’s thoughts!

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