Solar panels seem to be the solution to all our world’s energy problems. Simply throw a bunch of them up. Let them collect the sun’s energy. Watch our carbon footprint plummet. Keep living exactly as you always have.
…Not so fast!
The good news about solar panels is that they do in fact reduce our reliance on fossil fuels which pollute the atmosphere so much. The bad news is that a good portion of them have a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for their production.
Solar panel production has shifted from the US, Europe, and Japan to countries less concerned with environmental harm. This includes China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Currently, China produces nearly half the world’s solar panels.
You may read that solar panels get made out of silica, which is essentially sand. That’s only kinda true.
What you don’t hear is that solar panel manufacturers get the most widely available silica, quartz, via mining. Mining harms the environment and poses a threat to workers who mine it. They can get a lung condition called silicosis.
The mined quartz then needs intense heat from furnaces. It takes a lot of energy that usually comes from fossil fuel sources to do the refining. Plus, the process releases carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air.
The good news is that positive measures are being taken. For example, China set standards in 2011 that companies recycle 98.5% of their silicon tetrachloride (a by-product of the solar panel manufacturing process) waste. However, it’s not known how well this actually gets enforced.
What you’ve learned is only part of the problem. The real problem is that China relies heavily on coal power to produce solar panels.
One study by Northwestern University found that the carbon footprint of a solar panel made in China is twice that of one made in Europe.
Combine China’s reliance on coal for manufacturing and their looser regulation of its use, and you have a serious problem undercutting the environmental benefits of solar panels.
Manufacturers like Jinko Solar have also seen protests and legal action for dumping toxic waste into a nearby river.
Solar panels made in Europe, the US, or Japan maintain their ability to efficiently turn the sun’s rays into energy for many more years. That means you get more money in your pocket and save more energy.
Plus, you know about the much lower amounts of pollution required to make solar panels in more industrialized countries.
We’re not trying to rip on China here. But the facts are what they are.
So it’s important to understand all this if you’re in the market for solar panels. Know the true impact of your decision, whichever route you may go.
And finally, only you can make the best decision for yourself.