Are Solar Panels Actually Green?

Solar panels have become an increasingly popular source of renewable energy in recent years. As more homes and businesses adopt solar power, an important question arises: are solar panels truly an environmentally friendly “green” technology? This article will examine the potential benefits and drawbacks of solar panels through a life cycle perspective.

We will look at the environmental impacts at each stage – manufacturing, installation, usage, and disposal – to evaluate the overall costs and gains. Key questions include: How much emissions and toxicity result from producing solar panels? Do they take up valuable land? Can solar offset fossil fuel reliance? What happens when panels wear out? By weighing the evidence from various angles, we can reach a nuanced conclusion on the green credentials of this important renewable energy source.

Manufacturing Process

Making solar panels requires energy, raw materials, and industrial processes, which can result in emissions, waste, and hazards. The key components of a photovoltaic solar panel are the solar cells and frame. The solar cells are typically made from silicon, an energy-intensive material to purify and manufacture. The silicon must be purified and grown into crystals in a high temperature furnace. The crystals are then cut into wafers that are treated and assembled into cells. The cells are wired together and laminated between glass and plastic backing to form a solar module or panel. While there are some toxic materials like caustic acids used, modern manufacturing techniques have reduced their use1. However, the energy requirements to heat and purify silicon remain significant.

Lifespan Impacts

The lifecycle impacts of solar panels start with the extraction of raw materials like silicon, copper, and aluminum. Manufacturing solar panels is energy-intensive, but the carbon emissions during this stage are estimated to be around 45-75 g CO2/kWh over a panel’s lifetime (1). Once installed, solar panels generate clean, renewable energy for 25-40 years with minimal emissions (2). At end of life, over 96% of solar panel materials can be recycled, further reducing their total carbon footprint (3).

solar panels on a roof.

In comparison, coal power plants emit 820-880 g CO2/kWh over their lifespan from mining to electricity generation (1). Nuclear power emits around 4-110 g CO2/kWh including uranium mining and plant construction, but has issues with radioactive waste storage (1). Solar panels have higher emissions during manufacturing, but very low emissions when generating electricity. Overall, solar energy has far lower lifecycle carbon emissions per kWh than fossil fuels.




Land Use

Solar farms require significant amounts of land, especially utility-scale projects. According to, utility-scale solar farms typically need around 5-10 acres per megawatt (MW) of capacity. So a 100 MW solar farm would require 500-1000 acres of land. For comparison, the average US coal power plant takes up under 20 acres.

The large land footprint of solar farms can lead to habitat loss and fragmentation, especially if they are built on previously undeveloped land. Areas of natural habitat like forests, grasslands and wetlands may be cleared to construct solar facilities. This can negatively impact wildlife populations that depend on those habitats. For example, some threatened desert tortoise populations in the southwest US have been affected by utility-scale solar development in the Mojave desert.

However, solar farms can also be sited on marginal lands like abandoned mining sites or contaminated brownfields that are not suitable for other uses. This approach minimizes new land disturbance. Brownfield solar projects are becoming more common as a way to repurpose damaged sites while generating clean energy.


Solar panels contain toxic materials like lead and cadmium that can leach out as the panels degrade, posing potential environmental and health hazards. According to the EPA, “Heavy metals like lead and cadmium may be leachable at such concentrations that waste panels would fail the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure regulatory limits.”

A Wired article notes that “When these panels enter landfills, valuable resources go to waste. And because solar panels contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, the panels present environmental hazards.” The toxicity risks increase as more panels are disposed of over time.

Compared to other energy sources like coal and natural gas, the toxicity of solar panels is relatively low during usage. However, proper recycling and disposal is necessary to prevent toxic materials from accumulating in landfills. While coal ash also contains heavy metals, it is more stringently regulated under federal coal ash disposal rules.

Overall, while the toxicity of solar panels is manageable with proper end-of-life practices, it remains an important consideration when evaluating the sustainability of solar technology.

Recycling and Disposal

Recycling solar panels at the end of their life and disposing of them properly is an important consideration in evaluating their environmental impact. At present, solar panel recycling rates are quite low. According to C&EN, in the US there are no federal regulations mandating PV recycling, and the National Renewable Energy Lab estimates less than 10% of solar panels are currently recycled (

Recycling solar panels is technically possible but faces economic challenges. The materials in solar panels like silicon, silver, copper and aluminum are valuable and recyclable. However, the cost of collecting, transporting and processing the panels often exceeds the value recovered ( Some projections estimate that with subsidies to offset costs, recycling rates could reach 40%.

Most solar panels end up in landfills at end of life. Some contain lead and other hazardous materials, so their disposal needs to be handled carefully to avoid environmental contamination. Proper solar panel recycling and disposal is an area that will need more focus as adoption expands exponentially in coming decades (

Carbon Emissions

When considering the carbon emissions of solar panels, it’s important to look at the full lifecycle emissions compared to other energy sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. According to research, the carbon footprint of rooftop solar panels is around 12 times less than natural gas and 20 times less than coal over the full lifecycle (Source). This accounts for emissions from manufacturing, transportation, installation, and operations over an assumed 25 year lifespan.

Specifically, solar panels emit around 50g of CO2 per kWh produced in the first few years. But by year 3 of operation, most solar panels become carbon neutral and continue to generate clean energy for decades after (Source). In contrast, fossil fuel plants continue to emit CO2 for their operating lifespan. Taking 1,000 g of emissions, a coal plant will cause 67,500 tons of GHG, which is 25 times higher than a solar farm over the full lifecycle (Source).

Overall, solar energy saves between 0.5 to 1 tonne of CO2 per MWh compared to fossil fuels, helping solar play a major role in reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

Water Usage

Manufacturing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels is a water-intensive process, particularly in the purification and cleaning of silicon wafers. According to the Water Footprint of European Rooftop Photovoltaic Electricity, manufacturing mono-Si PV panels requires an estimated 16% of water used for process and cooling in production. CdTe thin film PV is more water efficient at 3%.

Once installed, solar PV systems require periodic cleaning to remove dust, dirt and bird droppings which can degrade performance. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar PV systems use about 20 gallons of water per MWh for cleaning. Proper siting to avoid excessive soiling can reduce water needs.

Overall, solar PV life cycle water usage is still far below conventional fossil fuel electricity. But the industry continues to seek ways to improve water efficiency in manufacturing and operation.

Energy Return on Investment

One key metric to consider for solar panels is the energy return on investment (EROI or ERoEI). This compares the total energy input required to manufacture, install, operate, and dispose of solar panels to the total energy output generated over their lifespan.

Older studies cited EROI figures as low as 1.4 for solar PV (Ferroni and Hopkirk, 2016), meaning more energy went into making the panels than could be generated over their working life. However, more recent analyses find much higher EROI ratios of between 15 and 35 (Raugei et al., 2017; Erofeev, 2017). This suggests solar can deliver over 10 times more usable energy than required for production.

Raugei et al. (2017) attribute the lower historical EROI estimates to inaccurate energy accounting and failing to consider real-world system performance. Their lifecycle analysis calculates an average EROI of over 26 for utility-scale solar PV systems in optimal global locations. Factors like panel efficiency, location, and system design substantially impact EROI.

In summary, modern evidence indicates solar PV can deliver high energy returns relative to production inputs, with an EROI comparable to other energy sources. Earlier low estimates appear flawed. Ongoing improvements in solar technology and efficiency should further increase net energy returns over time.


After examining the manufacturing process, lifespan impacts, land use, toxicity, recycling, carbon emissions, water usage, and energy return on investment, the environmental pros and cons of solar panels become clear. There are certainly some benefits – solar panels create electricity without emitting greenhouse gases during operation, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. However, producing the panels has its own carbon footprint, and toxic materials like lead and cadmium require careful disposal. Solar farms also take up significant land area. More research is needed to improve recycling methods and reduce the environmental impact of production and materials. Overall, solar power represents a step in the right direction, but it is not a flawless, zero-impact technology. With conscious manufacturing improvements, solar can come closer to its full potential as a clean energy source.

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