Is Solar Energy Sustainable? What You NEED to Know

Topic: solar projects Read Time: 8 mins
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Energy: Solar
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Have you been trying to figure out an answer to the question, “Is solar energy sustainable”? If so, we have all the facts you’ll need to make an informed decision about this powerful renewable energy source.

Renewable energy is becoming a particularly hot topic, with the government preaching the importance of decarbonisation to meet net-zero limits by 2050. Now, you might already be on board with wind turbines. But have you ever asked yourself, “Is solar energy sustainable?” Well, we’re here to set the record straight and give you all the information you need to make your mind up.

Not only will we fill you in on the benefits of renewable energy projects, but we’ll also cover the darker side of solar. That’s right; we’re not here to give you a biased review – we’re all about laying down the facts.

Now, let’s get to it.

Before we attempt to answer the complicated question “Is solar energy sustainable?”, we thought we’d give you a bit of context about the UK’s energy market.

Despite moving towards renewable solutions to meet net-zero limits by 2050, most of our energy comes from natural gas. Natural gas is an imported fossil fuel that emits harmful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and sulphur oxide when burned. To make things worse, the chemicals from coal plants account for 11% of methane emissions in the USA alone.

If you’re wondering why this is relevant to the discussion, it’s because burning natural gas is simply NOT sustainable.

Natural gas reserves are predicted to last another 53 years until they run out entirely. If we’re looking at oil, it’s 50 years. And coal? We get slightly longer, with 114 years, before resources dwindle. But realistically, these figures show that we only have a finite amount of these polluting resources. So, we must turn to renewable forms of energy to get us through the next several centuries.

So, now that we’ve given you some all-important context, let’s answer the question, “Is solar energy sustainable?”

Rows of solar panels with the sun

As we just mentioned, finding alternative forms of energy that don’t come from fossil fuels is important. And luckily for us, solar energy is one of our best options (alongside wind and hydroelectric power!).

As of 2023, solar power contributed approximately 4.9% to the UK’s total energy generation mix. Although it’s not as much as wind (which brings 29.4% to the table), it’s still a healthy addition to the UK’s renewable energy mix.

It’s also worth mentioning that solar power is virtually infinite, as the sun will always be there. The sun technically provides enough energy to meet the entire world’s needs. And while this needs to be harvested by solar panels, solar energy is a cost-effective (and limitless) option that will help us navigate climate change.

It’s also largely predictable. It’s obviously bound to be affected by cloud cover and fewer daylight hours during the wintertime. But it’s generally a constant and predictable source of energy that requires very little maintenance once it’s up and running. Oh, and did we mention that it can reduce a home’s carbon footprint by 80% in just one year? So, its long-term prospects give it a large tick in the “YES” column if we’re trying to answer the question, “Is solar energy sustainable?”

As mentioned, fossil fuels are finite energy sources that release toxic chemicals into the air. So, if you rely on solar energy (and have panels installed at your home), you could make a bigger difference to the UK’s overall energy mix than you think. For large-scale projects, the energy produced can significantly reduce a country’s overall reliance on foreign gas.

On the one hand, using solar is a fantastic step forward for reducing our reliance on finite resources. But it’s also an excellent way to reduce personal (and country-wide) energy costs over time.

If you’re wondering exactly how this reduces energy costs, it’s because the cost of energy in the UK is directly linked to the price of gas. So, if we’re less reliant on energy (or entirely energy-independent), the price of power will be linked to the next most expensive commodity. Over time, it’s hoped that this will be wind, solar, or hydroelectric energy (which are significantly cheaper than gas).

Now, planning regulations around renewable energy projects will need to loosen up for this to become a reality. But with enough pressure on the government to meet net-zero limits, it might be within reach.

Aside from being super cost-effective, solar energy is far more environmentally friendly than natural gas.

Green energy sources like solar have an estimated carbon footprint of 4.5 – 48 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt/hour of energy produced. We have natural gas and coal on the other end of the scale. These sources emit 272 – 907 grams and 635 – 1633 grams of carbon dioxide, respectively.

As you can see, there’s a significant difference in pollution between renewables and traditional energy sources. If that wasn’t impressive enough, an average domestic solar panel system could save the individual up to one ton of carbon output per year. If we consider the sheer scale of large solar farms, we’re looking at even less pollution across the country. Plus, the average solar panel reduces carbon dioxide by over 900 kg annually. Now, that’s what we call environmentally friendly.

Unfortunately, solar energy isn’t perfect, as it takes minerals like copper, nickel, and cadmium to build an average panel. These minerals aren’t necessarily an issue out of context, as they’re abundant. But demand for these materials (mainly silicon and lithium for batteries and photovoltaics) will likely outstrip supply in a few years.

The most common solar cells start as quartz, which is refined into elemental silicon to be used in different types of solar panels. Now, there are a couple of issues with this.

For starters, the quartz is extracted from mines, which puts miners at risk of the deadly lung disease silicosis. But it’s also essential to mention turning quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon requires a LOT of heat. 

A photo showing how a solar panel is manufactured.

For starters, the quartz is extracted from mines, which puts miners at risk of the deadly lung disease silicosis. But it’s also essential to mention turning quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon requires a LOT of heat.  This process happens in enormous furnaces and creates carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions. The emissions aren’t anywhere near what you’d find from burning fossil fuels. But over time, it could have a significant impact on the environment. And that’s not all.

During the manufacturing of thermal solar panels, engineers need to use large quantities of water for the cooling systems. As many of the naturally solar-efficient areas (sunny and arid spots) don’t have bundles of water for this purpose, it’s certainly not ideal.

You might not know this, but solar panels create quite a bit of waste when they come to the end of their usable life.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts that there’ll be a mind-boggling 78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050. To make things worse, only about 10% of solar panels worldwide are recycled. This lack of recycling leads to an immense amount of waste to dispose of safely.

The waste includes everything from toxic waste from mined materials before building the panels to silicon waste at the production stage. And that’s before you account for the glass and silicon at the end of a panel’s life.

If that wasn’t bad enough, The Washington Post found that a prolific polysilicon facility in China was dumping silicon tetrachloride waste on neighbouring fields. This made the agricultural land wholly useless and even went as far as to damage the throats of nearby residents. This behaviour isn’t the norm, but not every country around the globe will have the same disposal standards or legal obligations.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to mention that ALL electricity generation creates waste. This can be produced at a project’s extraction, building, or running phases. But it’s always worth looking at both sides of the coin if we’re trying to answer the question, “Is solar energy sustainable?”

It’s no secret that we don’t have sun 100% of the time. As a result, solar systems can’t constantly produce energy. Intermittency isn’t exclusive to solar energy, as wind and hydroelectric power sources face the same intermittency issues.

While solar systems can still collect energy when it’s cloudy or overcast, they collect energy at a reduced rate. Plus, they won’t be able to collect energy at night as there isn’t any irradiation. For this reason, some systems require batteries that offer a constant source of electricity. Certain Lithium batteries can cause environmental and ethical issues as they require cobalt to function. Unfortunately, the majority of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which uses child labour for its mining. So, obtaining batteries for solar systems is an ethical dilemma.

We’ll note that there’s been a move towards lithium-iron phosphorus batteries that don’t require cobalt to function. However, it’ll be a while before these batteries are universally adopted. Battery usage isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for environmental sustainability. But it’s something to consider on the ethical side.

Solar panels installed on a rolling hill

The final thing we must consider if we’re answering the question “Is solar energy sustainable?” is potential wildlife impact.

Developers must conduct feasibility and wildlife impact studies to secure planning permission for large-scale projects. But even if a project has minimal impact on its surroundings, there will be some fallout for avian species, pollinator habits, and local insects.

Most developers will try to minimise the impact on surrounding wildlife to the best of their ability. However, even the most experienced developers will need to cut vegetation away.

During the construction phase, there will also be disruption to natural habitats and increased noise and light pollution. Plus, most solar sites have some degree of stormwater runoff from photovoltaic panels to think about, which may affect water quality.

Although there are certain pitfalls to producing solar energy, the benefits far outweigh the downsides.

With global temperatures set to increase by about 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, we need to take significant action to halt climate change. And if we look at things economically, investing more in solar energy will only help decrease energy bills and reduce our dependence on foreign energy.

If that wasn’t convincing enough, solar energy production will likely become more sophisticated as time goes on. So, it’s hoped that a few of the arguments against solar sustainability will gradually fade out over the years.

If you’re interested in getting a solar project on your land (but need help figuring out where to start), get in touch. The friendly experts at Lumify Energy will gladly guide you through the process step by step.

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