The Hidden Environmental Impacts of Photovoltaic Panels

By: Adam S. Carlesco, Associate

It is an undeniable fact that renewable sources of energy have been rising tremendously over the past decade and are continuing to grow with nearly one in three new power projects being renewable in nature.[1] While wind energy is leading the pack of renewable technology, solar energy has seen a 52.2% growth between July 2012 and July 2013.[2] While many solar energy proponents continue to portray solar energy sources as a panacea for the growing global energy demand, these technologies carry a hidden environmental cost.

While solar energy only constitutes 0.11% of electricity generation in the U.S.,[3] many, including solar power researcher Dr. Richard Perez of the George Washington Solar Institute, believe that solar power is a completely feasible way to ensure full electricity to the American public with the development of large scale solar projects, along with supplements from wind and other renewable resources.[4] What Dr. Perez fails to note, however, is that while solar power provides a source of energy free from the fluctuations of fossil fuel demands and greenhouse gas emissions, solar photovoltaic panel production carries a large upfront pollutant cost.[5]

While the actual generation of electricity from photovoltaics produces no greenhouse gas emissions, the life cycle carbon costs of photovoltaic panels amounts to between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour.[6] Production and installation of photovoltaics also require far greater amounts of tin, silver, aluminum, zinc, and copper than any other conventional source of energy.[7] While a portion of these metals are sourced through recycling programs, a large majority come from mining ventures that carry with them a large environmental footprint.[8] These mining ventures include environmental impacts such as acid mine drainage; large scale arsenic emissions; cyanide and mercury poisoning of waterways; and consumption of as much as ten percent of the world’s energy usage, not to mention the widespread human rights abuses and child labor exploitation in mineral rich regions of the developing world like Chile and Bolivia.[9]

An added difficulty of large scale photovoltaics implementation is the construction of distribution resources linking generating facilities in sunny areas to large load regions within urban centers. Current electrical usage in the United States is 4,054 billion kilowatt hours, 68% of which coming from fossil fuels, in transmission systems designed for centralized generation facilities.[10] Solar, however, presents a very different scenario whereby photovoltaics may only be implemented in sunny areas and are more decentralized than large scale fossil fuel generating facilities, thus leading to developers facing a dilemma of placing solar facilities near urban centers or where greater solar energy is received.[11] While the combination of solar plants with wind farms may help stabilize solar energy transmission, greater transmission infrastructure is needed.[12] The building of those additional transmission lines comes with a plethora of potential environmental, economic, and political impacts such as right of way disputes, stray voltage striking animals, loss of endangered species habitat due to development of wild lands, possible interference with agricultural lands, and degradation of waterways due to soil erosion.[13]

While the environmental harms from large scale production of photovoltaic panels and integration of new solar resources into the bulk electric transmission system could possibly be mitigated by adequate resource stewardship, the harms from improper mining techniques, habitat destruction, and excessive land use for solar facilities may lead to tremendous ecological harm if implemented on a grand scale hastily and without reverence to ecological fragility. That said, the benefits of a potentially stable, renewable, greenhouse gas-free national electricity grid not reliant upon foreign fuels vastly outweigh the downsides and maintenance of the fossil fuel-heavy status quo that is dominated by foreign skirmishes for fuels,[14] complete destruction of entire mountains mined for coal,[15] methane contamination of rural water supplies,[16] and particulate emissions leading to nearly 24,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. from coal fired power plants alone.[17]


[1] Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2010 with Projections to 2035.
[2] Energy Information Administration, Energy Power Monthly July 2013, 11.
[3] Id.
[4] Richard Perez, A Way to the Most Abundant Energy, Scientific American (Oct. 26, 2013), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-way-to-the-most-abundant-energy&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_ENGYSUS_20131017.
[5] Rene Kleun, et al., Metal Requirements of Low-Carbon Power Generation, In Energy, Vol. 36, No. 9, Sept. 2011.
[6] IPCC, 2011: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.  Comparatively bituminous coal produced electricity emits 2.08 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, natural gas produces nearly half of that with 1.22 pounds per kilowatt hour.  Energy Information Administration, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=74&t=11 (last visited Oct. 26, 2013).
[7] Rene Kleun, et al., Metal Requirements of Low-Carbon Power Generation, In Energy, Vol. 36, No. 9, Sept. 2011.
[8] See generally Earthworks and Oxfam America, Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities, and the Environment, .
[9] Id at 4.
[10] Energy Information Administration, Energy Power Monthly July 2013.
[11] State Energy Conservation Office, Solar Energy, http://www.seco.cpa.state.tx.us/publications/renewenergy/solarenergy.php (last visited Oct. 26, 2013).
[12] Richard Perez, A Way to the Most Abundant Energy, Scientific American (Oct. 26, 2013).
[13] Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Environmental Impacts of Transmission Lines, 5-15.
[14] Noam Chomsky, It’s the Oil, stupid! Khaleej Times, July 8, 2008 (available at http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20080708.htm).
[15] EPA, Mid-Atlantic Mountaintop Mining, http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/ (last visited Oct. 26, 2013).
[16] Christopher Crockett, Methane in Pennsylvania Groundwater May Originate in Fracking Gas Wells, Scientific American, June 28, 2013,  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=methane-in-pennsylvania-duke-study (last visited Oct. 26, 2013).
[17] Deadly Power Plants? Study Fuels Debate, MSNBC, June 9, 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5174391/#.UmxHOD_fKuI (last visited Oct 26, 2013).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s