How Dangerous Is Solar Energy? A Holistic Life-Cycle Analysis

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy? A Holistic Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Smoot

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Over the years, solar energy has become our third-largest renewable electricity technology and shows no signs of slowing down. It can play a vital role in mitigating climate change, yet no energy source comes without drawbacks. So, we had to ask, How dangerous is solar energy really?

Overall, solar energy is not considered to be dangerous. Holistically and throughout its life cycle, solar has minimal negative effects on human or animal health, the environment, and the energy grid. It is significantly less dangerous than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy.

Keep reading to find out how dangerous solar energy is overall, holistically, and in terms of its life cycle. Then, we’ll describe solar energy’s pros and cons, look at how effective it is, and determine how it can help mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of the Dangerousness of Solar Energy

Solar energy is the conversion of solar radiation into electrical energy either through the use of photovoltaic (PV) panels or solar radiation-concentrating mirrors. The energy produced is then used to generate electricity or can be stored in batteries or thermal storage for use at a later time. 

“Solar Energy: energy that uses the power of the sun to produce electricity”

Cambridge Dictionary

Harnessing the power of the sun falls into two main categories:

  1. Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells: photovoltaic cells in solar panels absorb energy from sunlight, creating an electrical charge. This charge moves in response to an internal electric field in the cell, causing electricity to flow. 
  1. Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP): mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect and convert solar energy into heat. This is utilized in very large power plants.

Both systems take the energy from the sun and convert it to electricity, just by slightly different mechanisms. PV solar is the main mechanism used today to harness solar energy.

“Dangerous: involving possible injury, pain, harm, or loss: characterized by danger”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of solar energy? Check it out in this article here: “How Does Solar Energy Work? From Source Til Energy Generation”
How Dangerous Is Solar Energy OverallOverall, solar energy is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and through all stages of its life cycle. 
How Dangerous Is Solar Energy at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Solar energy is not dangerous to humans and is minimally dangerous to animals, with the main concerns being habitat loss and fragmentation of natural habitats.
Environment: Solar energy is minimally dangerous to the environment, with land degradation and solar panel toxicity being the two main concerns. 
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Solar energy is not considered to be dangerous to our energy grid or supporting infrastructure. 
How Dangerous Is Solar Energy Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Building solar facilities can expose workers to arc flashes (arc flash burn and blast hazards), electric shock, falls, and thermal burns.
Operating and Maintaining: Solar energy has minimal dangers associated with this stage, with burns and electric shock being the most common.
Building Back: The most common workplace hazards of this stage include those resulting from lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders.
How Dangerous Is Solar Energy In Comparison thjl;o Other Types of EnergySolar energy is significantly less dangerous than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy. In fact, solar is one of the, if not the, safest forms of energy with a death rate of only 0.02 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced.

Here’s How Dangerous Solar Energy Is Holistically and Across Its Life-Cycles

One way to combat the current global climate crisis threatening Earth’s environmental, economic, and social health is to transition away from traditional fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, such as solar energy. 

Just as with any energy source, it is important to understand how dangerous solar energy is before we implement it on a commercial scale. This involves analyzing all aspects of solar energy. 

For this reason, we have split our analysis into the following categories:

  • Overall dangerousness
  • Holistic dangerousness
  • Life-cycle dangerousness
  • Comparative dangerousness

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy Overall

Overall, solar energy is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and through all stages of its life cycle. The most common risks include habitat loss, fragmentation of natural habitats, and the possibility of solar panel chemicals leaching into the environment.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy at a Holistic Level

PV solar installed capacity is to exceed natural gas by 2026 and coal by 2027, becoming the largest in the world. Because solar is predicted to become a dominant electricity source, it is important to understand how dangerous it could be at a holistic level. 

“Holistic: relating to the whole of something or to the total system instead of just to its parts”

Cambridge Dictionary

To understand how dangerous solar energy is holistically, we must take into account how it affects us, the environment, and the power grid.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy When It Comes to Human and Animal Health

Solar energy is not considered to be dangerous to human health. 

In terms of wildlife, solar energy can come with minimal risks depending on the type and scale of the solar facility.

Overall, solar energy is not dangerous to humans and minimally dangerous to animals, with the main concerns being habitat loss and fragmentation of natural habitats. 

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy When It Comes to the Environment

Solar energy is minimally dangerous to the environment, with land degradation and solar panel toxicity being the two main concerns. 

Although PV solar arrays constructed on top of residential or commercial buildings have a minimal land use impact, utility-scale solar projects can have a large land use carbon footprint. A utility-scale PV solar plant can require 5-10 acres per megawatt of generating capacity, and concentrating solar plants typically require 10-15 acres. Clearing this land for construction can disturb natural habitats and degrade the land if proper measures are not followed.

Solar panels themselves can be classified as hazardous waste depending on the type of metals present in the semiconductor and solder. For example, lead, arsenic, and cadmium are considered to be detrimental to human health and the environment, at high levels, and are therefore classified as hazardous. If solar panels containing toxic metals are dumped into landfills, the metals may leach out into the environment, but recycling end-of-life solar panels can help ensure this does not occur. 

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy When It Comes to the Energy Grid and Infrastructure

Solar energy is not considered to be dangerous to our energy grid or supporting infrastructure. 

On the contrary, solar energy promotes the decentralization of our energy supply, which increases power grid efficiency by reducing peak time usage and decreasing the likelihood of power outages. 

Renewable energy, including solar energy, draws energy from various geographic locations, so the grid can distribute power from multiple plants. This decentralization in turn reduces peak time usage and decreases the likelihood of power outages. It also increases the efficiency of power production and power distribution.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy Across Its Life-Cycles

To understand how dangerous solar energy is, we must assess its life cycle and the hazards associated with each stage. This includes assessing solar energy’s building, operating and maintaining, and building back stages.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy in the Building Stage

The building stage of solar energy involves constructing solar facilities and electricity delivery mechanisms. 

This includes building the many components found in solar facilities including mirrors, heat-exchange fluid, receivers, engines, turbines, and generators as well as the transmission lines, transformers, and substations required for delivering electricity to consumers.

Those working in the solar energy industry can be exposed to a variety of hazards including arc flashes (arc flash burn and blast hazards), electric shock, falls, and thermal burns. Safe work practices and proper training are crucial to mitigating these risks, which are minimal if handled properly.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy in the Operating and Maintaining Stage

Solar energy has minimal dangers associated with its operating and maintenance stage. 

Maintaining solar energy can come with some risks. Solar panels can cause burns or electric shocks if not installed properly, but this risk is minimal because solar panels are typically installed by professional solar panel installers. In addition, most solar panels come equipped with an automatic shut-off system in the event of physical or mechanical damage. 

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy in the Building Back Stage

The building back stage of solar energy involves:

  1. Shutting down the solar panels and other mechanical equipment
  2. Removing the solar panels, mirrors, racks, foundations, and enclosures from the site
  3. Restoring the land or roof to its original state 

Potential dangers at this final stage are associated with utilizing construction equipment to decommission the panels and mirrors, demolish buildings, and construct new buildings in the old power plant’s place. The most common workplace hazards include those resulting from lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders.

How Dangerous Is Solar Energy In Comparison to Other Types of Energy

Solar energy is significantly less dangerous than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy. In fact, solar is one of the, if not the, safest forms of energy with a death rate of only 0.02 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. This includes deaths resulting from accidents and air pollution.

Illustration of What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?

To put it into perspective, a town powered entirely by solar energy with a population of 150,000 that uses one terawatt-hour of electricity per year would experience only 1 death from solar energy every 50 years. If that same town was powered entirely by coal, roughly 1,250 people would die prematurely in the same amount of time, mostly from air pollution – that’s about 25 people every year.

Illustration of Death rates per unit of electricity generation from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Death rates per unit of electricity generation

In short, solar energy is significantly less dangerous than all other types of energy and is actually considered one of our safest forms of energy because it boasts one of the, if not the, lowest death rates per unit of electricity generation from accidents and air pollution.

What Are the 6 Pros and 4 Cons of Solar Energy

Solar energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source, has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, is efficient, generates few waste products, has low maintenance costs, and promotes energy independence and security.

However, solar energy is also an intermittent energy source, faces high upfront and maintenance costs, and has specific land requirements.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of solar energy? Check out the full article here: “Solar Energy: All 6 Pros and 4 Cons Explained”

These Are the 6 Pros of Solar Energy

Solar energy has various pros that make it effective at reducing carbon emissions.

6 Pros of Solar EnergyQuick Facts
#1: Solar energy is a renewable energy sourceSolar energy is classified as a renewable energy source because the sun generates energy at a rate faster than we can consume it. It is also sustainable because it emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and does not negatively affect the environment, provided that proper siting and disposal methods are followed.
#2: Solar energy has a low carbon footprintSolar energy has the fifth-lowest carbon footprint out of all energy types. On a life-cycle basis, concentrating solar energy emits 38, PV roof solar energy emits 41, and PV utility solar energy emits 48 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced.
#3: Solar energy protects air qualityRather than combusting toxic materials like coal does, solar power plants harness the energy of the sun to generate electricity. PV panels and concentrating mirrors produce minimal greenhouse gasses and emit no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, thereby helping to protect air quality.
#4: Solar energy is efficientToday’s PV solar cells have an average commercial energy conversion rate of 15-20%. In addition, solar energy is an efficient use of land, producing roughly 40 times more energy than one acre of corn devoted to ethanol production. 
#5: Solar energy generates few waste productsSolar energy generates minimal CO2 and few other waste products upon operation, and solar panels can be recycled.
#6: Solar energy promotes energy independence and energy security Solar energy can help us transition away from fossil fuels and towards an energy-independent future.

These Are the 4 Cons of Solar Energy

Understanding the drawbacks of solar energy is important to effectively mitigate climate change. 

4 Cons of Solar EnergyQuick Facts
#1: Solar energy is an intermittent energy sourceThe amount and availability of sunlight varies by location, time of day and year, and weather. The unpredictable nature of solar means we cannot rely on it fully to produce all of our energy. 
#2: Solar energy has high upfront costsThe Solar Energy Industries Association estimates it costs roughly $25,000 to install an average-sized residential solar system in the US, before taking into account any tax incentives. Solar batteries can cost between $12,000 and $20,000 to install, depending on the type and size.
#3: Solar energy can be expensive to maintainRoutine solar panel maintenance can cost between $140-$180 per service, and solar panel cleaning can cost $25 per panel. Optional solar system monitoring, roof and solar panel repairs, and tree trimming can be additional hidden expenses.
#4: Solar energy has specific land requirementsUtility-scale solar farms require 5-15 flat, unobstructed acres of land close to major population centers for commercial energy generation.

How Effective and Efficient Is Solar Energy

In terms of effectiveness, solar energy has a low carbon footprint, protects air quality, and promotes energy security and independence.

In terms of efficiency, solar energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source, increases the efficiency of the power grid, and generates few waste products. Solar panels also efficiently convert sunlight into energy.

Solar energy is effective because:

Solar energy is efficient because:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient solar energy is? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Is Solar Energy?”

How Can Solar Energy Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe, long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. If left untreated, atmospheric CO2 can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change. Solar energy emits less CO2 upon operation than fossil fuels and can therefore reduce our total emissions. 

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of CO2. Every year, we emit approximately 37 billion tons of CO2. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

“Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns, and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.”

Oxford Dictionary

When carbon enters the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight and solar radiation, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet.

Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (°C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07°C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18°C, or 0.32°F, for every 10 years

How Does Solar Energy Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

The global average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million, the highest ever recorded. Solar energy can help lower this concentration because it can replace some of the burning of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) with a cleaner form of renewable energy.

Solar emits roughly 0.05%-0.08% of the amount of CO2 (grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh) as fossil fuels. Solar also has a life-cycle global warming emission between 0.08 and 0.2 pounds of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh), whilst coal power plants have an estimated emission between 1.4-3.6 pounds of CO2 equivalent per kWh. 

Increasing solar energy usage can reduce CO2 emissions, and the more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we combat the negative effects associated with climate change including temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

Final Thoughts

At a holistic level, solar energy is considered minimally dangerous in terms of human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid and supporting infrastructure. The most common risks include habitat loss, fragmentation of natural habitats, and the possibility of solar panel chemicals leaching into the environment.

In terms of its life cycle, solar energy can come with the danger of arc flashes, electric shock, falls, and thermal burns. Common workplace hazards include those resulting from lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders, all of which can be managed with proper workplace training.

Solar energy is significantly less dangerous than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy. If we want to create a sustainable planet for future generations, solar energy is a beneficial addition to our energy mix.

Stay impactful,

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