March 6, 2024

Is Solar Power Renewable? Understanding the Environmental Benefits

8 Min. Read

Renewable energy is growing at an explosive pace as federal investments, corporate ESG goals, and consumer interests align to support a cleaner, more sustainable power infrastructure.

Solar energy is rapidly emerging as a cost-effective and eco-friendly way to generate electricity, boost electrical independence, and build grid resilience.

However, there has been recent speculation and concern over the true “renewability” and sustainability of solar power, which begs the question, what are the potential costs of capturing energy from the sun and converting it into electricity?

Is solar power renewable? In this article, we explore what makes solar power renewable, what impact capturing energy from sunlight has on the environment, and break down the potential limitations of solar power sustainability based on the environmental impact of the equipment used for solar panels.

The Basics of Solar Power

Solar panels use photovoltaic cells made from semiconductor materials, such as silicone. These materials absorb the particles that sunlight is made of, also known as photons.

Once semiconductors absorb photons, a reaction occurs causing the semiconductor material to release electrons. This reaction generates an electrical current that can then flow into the metal contacts of the panel to power an appliance, charge a battery, or get uploaded into the power grid.

Similarly to how plants absorb light to create chemical energy for food through photosynthesis, photovoltaic cells use the sun’s light to generate electrical energy, which is then transferred to provide immediate power or stored for later use.

It’s worth noting that efficiency for solar panels and energy generation can vary based on the solar array and its location. PV cells can typically capture 15 to 20% of the sunlight they receive and turn it into energy. Solar technology has come a long way since early products that could only capture 6% of available light, and panels with an efficiency of 39% or more are on the horizon.

Location is another important consideration since sunlight hours, cloud cover, light energy density, and even the angle of the panels dictate how much light the cells will receive.

The Renewability of Solar Power

Is solar power renewable? In short, the answer is yes. Photovoltaic (PV) cells act as a converter that transforms an infinite resource into electricity. The cells don’t consume any fuel while doing so and don’t destroy or deplete the resources used, so as long as the sun continues to shine, solar energy will continue to be produced and can be converted to electrical energy.

Even as PV cells utilize and convert the sunlight that passes through them, no light or energy is removed from the area any more than light hitting a roof without solar panels or light streaming through a tree canopy overhead.

Solar panel farms, which are often installed on the ground, can provide essential shade for more sensitive plants that require less direct sunlight to thrive and can even help reduce the need for watering crops by reducing the evaporation of open fields.

The primary consideration regarding the renewability of solar power stems from the use of solar panels and other components. The manufacturing and recycling processes for these components have an environmental impact.

Most solar panels are composed of silicone, aluminum, glass, and copper. Manufacturing silicone and aluminum involves using hydrocarbons. While all these materials are recyclable, recycling can create a carbon footprint since materials are often transported to other countries for recycling.

However, it’s important to weigh the full benefits of solar energy against any potential environmental impact. A solar panel can last 25 to 30 years before its energy production capacity declines. Recycling old panels can reduce waste in landfills, and old panels can also support less energy-intensive projects.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Outside of the manufacturing, distribution, and recycling processes associated with the solar industry, solar energy doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.

Producing electricity with petroleum creates 2.38 pounds of CO2 per kWh, while coal and natural gas produce 2.30 and 0.97 pounds per kWh, respectively. Compared to the average U.S. power plant running on fossil fuels, solar energy produces 976 pounds per MWh less in CO2 emission.

The good news is that solar adoption is accelerating and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, experts believe that fossil fuel emissions from coal could decline by 7% and emissions from natural gas drop by 1% by 2025. This is all thanks to the widespread adoption of renewables.

Solar installations could grow by as much as 10% in 2024, and renewable energy could represent a quarter of all electricity produced in the U.S. by the end of the year. Adopting solar energy on this scale is a significant step toward mitigating the effects of climate change and improving air quality.

Minimal Environmental Footprint

Because sunlight is available everywhere, solar energy is well suited to a modern power infrastructure that prioritizes decentralization and community resources, while also giving home and business owners increased energy independence with battery storage. It also lessens the environmental impact of transporting and storing energy. This is an ongoing issue illustrated by pipeline projects that are disruptive to communities and the environment.

Solar arrays can take up land space, but effective strategies for integrating solar panels into the existing infrastructure exist.

A popular option is to install solar panels on a home or building’s rooftop. This approach has applications on a larger scale—for instance, by incorporating solar canopies into parking lots. In the future, we could see floating solar arrays at sea or farmland converted into an energy asset thanks to agrivoltaics, and other innovations in solar panels could see transparent solar panels doubling as windows, solar skins that blend into building walls, and other advancements.

Recycling and End-of-Life Considerations

Recycling panels when they reach the end of their lifespans significantly reduces the environmental impact of solar energy and makes solar power even more renewable.

Choosing a local recycling program to avoid transporting materials over long distances and selecting a program that can recycle all the components in a single site are important considerations. The Solar Energy Industries Association PV Recycling Program is a helpful resource for locating recycling services in your area.

You can also look for recycling programs on Earth911 or use this U.S. Department of Energy map to filter recyclers in your region.

Energy Independence and Security

Since sunlight is free and widely available across the planet on a daily basis, adopting solar energy on a large scale has the potential to foster energy independence and security.

Solar energy isn’t a regulated commodity subject to price fluctuations such as fossil fuels, which can be changed daily or hourly, and it’s not a resource that is likely to spark geopolitical conflicts or environmental disruption, either.

Deploying solar arrays is a key step in reducing our society’s reliance on fossil fuels. Since solar power is renewable, energy production can easily move to the local level and reduce the strain on centralized power plants, while also empowering communities through energy independence.

Communities can still access power in an emergency even if a central power plant is affected and first responders won’t have to transport fuel to the affected area to maintain power. This will help create safer scenarios with reduced risks of pollution, fire, and other hazards, as many traditional fuel options can easily combust and have provable repercussions to the environment in the event of an accident or spill.

Community and Economic Benefits

Solar energy paves the way for adopting more microgrids and nanogrids.

This model emphasizes local energy resources and turns individuals, businesses, municipalities, and tribes into key players in the energy infrastructure. Microgrids and nanogrids can lower energy costs while giving communities more control over their energy consumption.

The solar industry has other benefits, including supporting the local economy and creating jobs. It’s a strong industry with a projected growth of 9% in employment, and it generated more than $36 billion in private investments in 2022 alone.

Additionally, with current incentives under the Infrastructure Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) and the Residential Clean Energy Credit, homeowners can qualify for a 30% tax credit for installing solar panels, small wind turbines, and other clean energy projects, with additional savings at the state, local, and municipal level. Many utilities also offer incentives for installing solar panels.

Solar Energy—A Renewable Resource

Sunlight is a free and infinite resource, making solar power one of the most effective forms of renewable energy. While there is a potential environmental impact linked to manufacturing and recycling solar panels, the benefits are considerable since solar power can potentially eliminate a majority of greenhouse gas emissions that result from traditional electricity production.

You can play a part in building a clean and sustainable future while lowering your own energy bills and ensuring your home is energy-independent and resilient—even during inclement weather and during utility power outages.

Investing in solar energy has a multitude of benefits. A solar array can power your home, give you access to net metering programs through your local utility provider to sell excess electricity back to the grid, and make you more independent from the power grid.

If you’re interested in harnessing the renewability of solar power for your home or business, Qmerit can help! Qmerit’s network of certified electrical contractors is changing the industry as the leading provider of electrification services across North America.

With over 53,000 solar panel integration projects completed, we make it easier than ever to go solar. Our experts will assess your unique situation, recommend the best solar solution based on your energy needs and existing infrastructure, and design a customized electrification solution that integrates renewable energy into your home.

Contact Qmerit today to learn more about solar options and other electrification solutions such as battery storage or electrical panel upgrades for your home.

Author: Greg Sowder Greg Sowder President, Qmerit Network