How Sustainable Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Sustainable Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

By
Grace Smoot

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Enough sunlight strikes the surface of the earth in an hour and a half to account for the world’s energy consumption in a year. Given its large energy generation potential, solar energy is often viewed as one of our most sustainable resources. So we had to ask: How sustainable is solar energy? 

Overall, solar energy is considered to be sustainable energy. Advancements in solar panel efficiency and recycling have increased solar energy’s sustainability. Sustainable energy is derived from processes that do not jeopardize the energy needs of future generations.

Keep reading to learn how sustainable solar energy is throughout its life cycle, what its carbon footprint is, what role it plays in combating climate change, and how safe or dangerous it is. 

Here’s How Sustainable Solar Energy Is

Solar energy is the conversion of solar radiation into electrical energy either through the use of photovoltaic (PV) panels or solar radiation-concentrating mirrors. 

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

Cambridge Dictionary

Solar energy has become one of our most advanced, widespread, and sustainable renewable energy technologies. Sustainable energy sources meet the needs of our current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Given the worsening climate crisis, sustainable energy has to come to represent a larger share of the overall energy market.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about sustainable energy? Check it out in this article here: “Sustainable Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

To understand how sustainable solar energy is, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s carbon footprint. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of solar energy!

How sustainable is solar energy overallOverall, solar energy has been made more sustainable in recent years due to advancements in solar panel efficiency and solar panel recycling. We also generate a fraction of the amount of energy that the sun gives off, meaning we can continue to sustainably harvest solar energy for many years to come.
Building of solar energySolar panel and solar facility construction has become more sustainable in recent years with advancements in solar panel efficiency.
Operating and maintaining of solar energyThis stage is sustainable because we harness only a fraction of the amount of energy the sun gives off, meaning we can continue to use solar energy for many years to come.
Building back of solar energySolar panels are built to last 30 years, and they can be recycled at the end of their life cycle, which increases their sustainability.

How Sustainable Is Solar Energy Overall

Overall, solar energy has been made more sustainable in recent years due to advancements in solar panel efficiency and solar panel recycling. We also generate a fraction of the amount of energy that the sun gives off, meaning we can continue to sustainably harvest solar energy for many years to come.

How Sustainable Is the Building of Solar Energy

The building stage of solar energy involves constructing solar panels/mirrors, solar facilities, and electricity delivery mechanisms. 

Innovations in solar energy technology’s history have made solar energy more sustainable, with solar panel efficiency being a major development.

Solar energy efficiency has drastically improved since the creation of the first PV solar cells in 1883 by American inventor Charles Fritts. His solar cells had an efficiency, also called an energy conversion rate, of 1-2%, meaning they converted only 1-2% of the total sunlight captured into usable energy. 

Today’s PV solar cells have an average commercial energy conversion rate of 15-20% and an experimental conversion rate of more than 30%. High-efficiency panels can reach as much as 23%. 

The more efficient solar panels are, the less solar panels we need to generate the same amount of energy. And because solar panels themselves come with a carbon footprint, generating more energy from fewer solar panels is beneficial.

How Sustainable Is the Operating and Maintaining of Solar Energy

The operating and maintaining stage of solar energy includes the process by which solar facilities capture the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity. 

Solar energy can continue to be sustainable so long as the rate of harvest does not exceed the rate of replenishment.

The sun will eventually run out of fuel and begin to die, but this won’t happen for another 5 billion years. Until then, we can continue to harness some of the 44 quadrillion watts of solar energy that fall upon Earth every year. To put it into perspective, it would take roughly 44 million power plants producing 1 billion watts of power to equal the amount of energy coming from the sun. 

Given that we generated 1,300 terrawatts (1.3 quadrillion watts) of solar energy in 2022, we can continue to sustainably harvest solar energy for many years to come.

How Sustainable Is the Building Back of Solar Energy

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 

Solar panels themselves have an average life expectancy of 25-30 years. And this can be extended for many decades with proper maintenance because the panels do not have moving parts and are typically only damaged by poor installation, wind, debris, or other inclement weather events. Also, solar panel output generally decreases by 0.8% each year. At the end of 25 years, solar panels can still operate at around 82.5%, and some panels have even lower degradation rates so they can remain in operation for longer. 

Recycling end-of-life solar panels can further increase their sustainability. Many of the components of solar panels can be recycled, including glass, aluminum, copper wire, and the plastic junction box. Specialty metals and silicon cells can also be separated and purified via chemical and electrical techniques. 

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

Renewable energy is sustainable when we preserve our natural resources. When we exploit resources faster than the planet can handle and replenish, renewables become unsustainable.

When taking into account the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions profile and level of environmental impact, we get the following six most common types of renewable energy ranked in terms of most to least sustainable:

Geothermal energytakes the top spot in terms of sustainability because its GHG emissions are drastically lower than that of coal, and preventative measures such as water recycling minimize environmental impacts.
Solar and wind energyare sustainable because they have low levels of GHG emissions, but they also have the potential to negatively impact the environment if preventative measures are not taken. 
Hydro energycan be sustainable if low hydro is utilized because the GHG emissions and environmental impact are minimal. Large hydro carries higher levels of GHG and can disturb the aquatic environment.
Tidal energyand its impact on the environment needs to be researched more before it can be implemented on an economic scale. But it is non-polluting.
Biomass energyclaims the last spot on the list because burning it releases substantial amounts of GHG emissions, and forest clearcutting causes significant environmental damage.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Energy

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption and includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Although solar energy emits zero to no GHG emissions upon operation, there are emissions associated with other stages of its life cycle including manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, decommissioning, and dismantlement of materials.

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

Have a look at the illustration below to see the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions of different energy sources and how they compare to solar energy.

Illustration of the Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions from World Nuclear Association
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

What Role Does Solar Energy Play in Combating Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term, global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 37 billion tons of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2. This warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket, and a warmer earth comes with a host of negative side effects. 

Using solar energy instead of fossil fuel energy helps mitigate the following negative effects of climate change:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979, arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of 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. 

To help keep global temperature rise below 1.5C, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, we must shift at least 80% of our electricity generation to low carbon sources. Over 120 countries have already stated their net-zero carbon emissions ambitions for 2050 or 2060. But only 12 countries have thus far proposed or enacted any legislation, indicating that there is more work to be done.

How Clean Is Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is considered to be clean energy. 

Clean energy: energy, as electricity or nuclear power, that does not pollute the atmosphere when used, as opposed to coal and oil”

Collins Dictionary

Solar energy produces virtually no greenhouse gasses or any other kind of environmental pollution upon its operation.

How clean is the building of solar energyEmissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the solar facility, with larger solar facilities requiring more materials and resulting in more emissions from construction. Essentially, the smaller the solar facility, the cleaner the building stage is considered. 
How clean is the operating and maintaining of solar energyThere are very few CO2 emissions or waste products associated with operating and maintaining PV and concentrating solar energy, making this phase very clean. 
How clean is the building back of solar energyEmissions at this stage vary based on the type and size of the solar facility, with larger solar facilities requiring more effort to decommission. Essentially, the smaller the solar facility, the cleaner the building back stage is considered. 
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how clean solar energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Clean Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Green Is Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is considered to be green energy.

Green Energy: energy that can be produced in a way that protects the natural environment, for example by using wind, water, or the sun”

Cambridge Dictionary

Solar energy has a low to zero-emissions profile and carbon footprint reductions that provide the highest environmental benefits.

How green is the building of solar energyThe building stage of solar energy has a low carbon footprint when compared to fossil fuels, and solar can have a minimal impact on the land if proper siting measures are followed.
How green is the operating and maintaining of solar energySolar energy emits minimal greenhouse gasses and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of solar facilities occurs.
How green is the building back of solar energyRecycling end-of-life solar panels can help ensure any toxic chemicals do not leach out into the environment.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how green solar energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Green Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Renewable Is Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is considered to be renewable energy.

Renewable Energy: energy that is produced using the sun, wind, etc., or from crops, rather than using fuels such as oil or coal | types of energy that can be replaced naturally such as energy produced from wind or water”

Cambridge Dictionary

Solar energy is flow-limited, naturally replenishing, virtually inexhaustible, and limited in the amount of energy available in a set amount of time. 

How renewable is the building of solar energyThis initial stage of solar energy is not considered to be renewable because it involves constructing and not repurposing or re-using.
How renewable is the operating and maintaining of solar energyThis stage is renewable because we harness only a fraction of the amount of energy the sun gives off, and it naturally replenishes itself over time. 
How renewable is the building back of solar energySolar panels are built to last 30 years, and they can be recycled and repurposed at the end of their life cycle.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how renewable solar energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Renewable Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Environmentally Friendly Is Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is considered to be environmentally friendly.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Solar energy does just as the word implies, it has a minimal, negative impact on the environment.

How environmentally friendly is the building of solar energyThe building of solar energy can be environmentally friendly so long as clearing the land for construction does not disturb natural habitats and degrade the land.
How environmentally friendly is the operating and maintaining of solar energySolar energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment, provided that proper siting of solar facilities occurs.
How environmentally friendly is the building back of solar energySolar panels themselves can be classified as hazardous waste depending on the type of metals present in the semiconductor and solder. Recycling end-of-life solar panels can help ensure any toxic chemicals do not leach out into the environment. 
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how environmentally friendly solar energy is? Check it out in this article here: “How Environmentally Friendly Is Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

How Safe or Dangerous Is Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is not considered to be dangerous. Holistically and throughout its life cycle, solar is safe and beneficial for human and animal health, the environment, and the energy grid. It is also significantly safer than fossil fuels and other types of renewable energy.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how safe or dangerous solar energy is? Check it out in these articles here: 

Here’s How Safe Solar Energy Is

Overall, solar energy is a safe form of energy regarding human and animal health, the environment, the energy grid, and throughout all stages of its life cycle.

How Safe Is Solar Energy at a Holistic LevelHuman and Animal Health: Solar energy is safe for human and animal health and can be made safer with proper siting, monitoring, and maintenance of solar facilities. 
Environment: Solar energy emits minimal greenhouse gas emissions and has a minimal effect on the environment.
Energy Grid and Infrastructure: Solar energy is a safe and beneficial addition to our power grid. It promotes the decentralization of our energy supply, which increases power grid efficiency by reducing peak time usage and decreasing the likelihood of power outages. 
How Safe Is Solar Energy Across Its Life-CycleBuilding: Safe work practices and proper training of solar professionals can mitigate any risks associated with constructing solar facilities.
Operating and Maintaining: Solar energy is considered safe to operate and maintain because it does not harm human health or the environment when producing energy. 
Building Back: This final stage is considered to be safe overall, with the most common workplace hazards (lifting, trips and falls, electricity, and ladders) able to be mitigated by safe work practices. 
How Safe Is Solar Energy In Comparison to Other Types of EnergySolar energy is one of our safest forms of energy that has one of the lowest death rates from accidents and air pollution per unit of electricity generation.

Here’s How Dangerous Solar Energy Is

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. 

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 to 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.

Final Thoughts

Overall, solar energy has been made more sustainable in recent years due to advancements in solar panel efficiency and solar panel recycling. We also generate a fraction of the amount of energy that the sun gives off, meaning we can continue to sustainably harvest solar energy for many years to come.

Sustainable energy is poised to see continued growth in the future as we look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global warming. As we look towards a future powered by renewables, solar energy is predicted to continue increasing in capacity because it benefits both our atmosphere and Earth’s biota.

Stay impactful,

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