What Resources Are Needed For Solar Energy?

Solar energy is the conversion of energy from sunlight into electricity or heat. The amount of sunlight that arrives at the Earth’s surface provides more energy in one hour than the world uses in an entire year. Understanding the resources required to harness solar energy is important as we transition more of our energy production to renewable sources.

This article will provide an overview of the key resources needed for solar energy production, including land requirements, raw materials like silicon and glass, water usage, energy storage, power lines, labor, and economic investments. We’ll also touch on some of the environmental impacts of solar energy.

Land Requirements

Solar power requires significant amounts of land, especially for utility-scale solar farms. A 1,000 megawatt solar farm can require around 25 square miles of land. This is because solar panels need to be spread out over a large area to collect sufficient sunlight. The exact amount of land depends on factors like the efficiency of the solar panels and the solar irradiance in the location.

Compared to other energy sources, solar requires more land per unit of energy produced. Fossil fuel power plants can produce the same amount of electricity as a solar farm on just a few acres. Even wind farms require less space than solar farms per megawatt. However, solar farms can utilize barren, unusable land that cannot support other economic activity like agriculture. With proper siting, the land use impacts can be mitigated.

Rooftop solar arrays on homes and businesses have minimal land requirements. Rooftop solar allows solar generation without using up additional land. However, rooftop solar cannot reach the scale of utility-level solar farms which operate at hundreds of megawatts. Overall, solar does require significant land, especially compared to fossil fuels. Careful solar farm siting is needed to minimize the land use impacts.

Raw Materials

Solar panels are primarily made from silicon, one of the most abundant materials on Earth. Silicon is refined and purified into crystalline silicon solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity. Other key raw materials for solar panels include:

  • Aluminum – Aluminum frames provide structural support for solar panels.
  • Glass – Solar panels have a top protective layer of glass to allow light to pass through while protecting the cells.
  • Copper – Copper wiring and interconnects transport electricity generated by solar cells.
  • Plastics and polymers – Plastics encapsulate and seal solar cells in a weatherproof package.
  • Silver – Silver is used in solar cell electrical contacts and wiring for its high conductivity.

While silicon and silver are relatively rare materials, solar panels only require small amounts. And many raw materials can be recycled from old solar panels at the end of their usable life, reducing the need for new materials.

Water Usage

Solar energy generally requires less water to produce electricity than conventional sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. This makes solar an attractive option in areas where water availability is a concern.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, require very little water. PV panels only need occasional cleaning to remove dust buildup, which can be done with minimal water. Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, which use mirrors to focus sunlight to drive turbines, require water for cooling and steam generation. However, CSP plants use 75-90% less water on average than coal and 35-60% less than nuclear.

Solar thermal and PV systems can also reduce water demand elsewhere by using solar energy to power water treatment and desalination plants. Overall, solar power’s low water intensity compared to other energy sources makes it favorable in water-stressed regions and for environmentally-conscious consumers.

Energy Storage

One of the key components of a solar energy system is the ability to store the energy captured from the sun for later use when the sun is not shining. This requires batteries and other energy storage technologies.

Lithium-ion batteries have become the predominant battery technology used in solar energy storage. These high-efficiency batteries utilize lithium metal oxide cathodes and graphite anodes. The most common materials used for the cathodes include lithium cobalt oxide, lithium iron phosphate, lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, and lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide. The lithium salts are combined with electrolytes and sealed in battery cells.

Battery banks made up of many lithium-ion cells can store electricity from solar panels during the day and discharge it when needed at night. Utility-scale solar farms couple thousands of lithium-ion batteries with the solar panels to store gigawatt-hours worth of energy.

Beyond lithium-ion, there is active research into next-generation batteries using materials like zinc, sodium, aluminum, and sulfur. Flow batteries that store energy directly in liquid electrolytes are also an area of innovation. And battery management systems are crucial to monitor battery health and efficiency.

Advances in energy storage technology will allow solar power to become an increasingly reliable and dispatchable source of renewable energy.

Power Lines

One key component of any large-scale solar energy project is the transmission infrastructure to transport the electricity from the solar generation site to the grid where it can be distributed to end users. Solar power plants are often located in remote areas with optimal sunlight, which can be far from the existing transmission grid. That means new high-voltage transmission lines must be built to connect these large utility-scale solar sites to the electrical grid.

Building new transmission lines is very expensive, often costing hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars depending on the distance and terrain that must be covered. Permits and right-of-way negotiations can also create challenges. However, without ample transmission capacity to carry power to load centers, the electricity generated by solar plants cannot be fully utilized. Having robust transmission networks is critical to enable the growth and deployment of utility-scale solar power across a region.

Upgrading the grid with new transmission lines specifically designed for renewable energy will benefit solar growth in the long run. The transmission infrastructure represents an important up-front investment that allows solar power to be efficiently transported and integrated into the overall electric system at scale. While costly, building out transmission is necessary infrastructure for solar to make a meaningful contribution to energy supply as a major renewable power source.

Labor Needs

The solar energy industry is creating many new jobs across the supply chain. From manufacturing to installation to maintenance, the solar workforce is rapidly expanding. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, over 250,000 Americans worked in the solar industry in 2020. This represents a jump of over 50% from the previous year.

Major areas of job growth include solar panel manufacturing and solar project installation. As solar manufacturing capacity expands in the U.S., more jobs are needed on the factory floor. Workers assemble, test and package photovoltaic cells and modules. There are also opportunities in supply chain logistics and procurement. On the installation side, rooftop solar projects require electricians, construction workers and technicians to deploy the systems. Large utility-scale solar farms engage many contractors to handle civil engineering, construction, and electrical work.

Once solar systems are built, there are ongoing maintenance jobs to keep them running optimally. Solar array technicians conduct preventative maintenance, troubleshooting and repairs. Operations managers, administrators and other support roles also contribute to upkeep and monitoring. Overall, the broad range of occupations across the solar value chain underscores the positive employment impact of this renewable energy technology.

Economic Investments

Deploying solar power on a large scale requires substantial economic investments. Solar projects need significant upfront capital to cover the costs of equipment like solar panels, inverters, and mounting systems. While prices for solar components have dropped dramatically over the past decade, installing a utility-scale solar farm still costs several million dollars.

Access to financing and capital is essential for the growth of solar energy. Most large solar projects are financed through debt and equity arrangements. Banks provide loans, while solar developers and investors contribute equity. Solar projects can also utilize innovative financing models like power purchase agreements and leases to reduce upfront costs.

Government incentives like tax credits, rebates, and renewable energy credits provide a boost to solar economics. The federal investment tax credit (ITC) allows solar project owners to deduct 30% of installation costs from their taxes. Many states have additional incentives like sales tax exemptions and rebates. These subsidies lower costs and spur solar adoption.

Over time, continued technological improvements and economies of scale will reduce solar costs further. But in the near-term, access to capital and smart public policy will be critical to enabling large-scale solar deployments and investments.

Environmental Impact of Solar Energy

When considering the environmental effects of energy sources, it’s important to examine the full lifecycle impacts from raw material extraction and manufacturing to power plant operations and decommissioning. In terms of emissions, solar energy has a clear advantage over fossil fuels like coal and natural gas which produce high levels of greenhouse gases when burned. But how does solar compare to other low-carbon sources like nuclear and wind?

According to research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the lifecycle emissions from utility-scale solar power range from 18 to 48 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. This is comparable to nuclear energy at 12 grams CO2/kWh and substantially lower than natural gas at 469 grams CO2/kWh. Wind turbines have slightly lower lifecycle emissions than solar at 11-12 grams CO2/kWh. So while solar may produce marginally more emissions during manufacturing and construction compared to wind and nuclear, its emissions savings during decades of operation make it a very low-carbon energy source overall.

In terms of waste, solar panels do contain some hazardous materials like lead that must be managed properly during manufacturing and disposal. But the volume of hazardous waste is generally low, especially compared to coal ash from power plants which contains toxins like mercury and arsenic. Responsible solar companies are working to reduce waste, increase recycling, and ensure safe handling of materials.

One area where solar has an advantage is water usage. Solar photovoltaic systems require very little water for operations, while nuclear and some concentrating solar thermal plants use water for cooling. The lifecycle water usage of utility-scale solar PV is around 30 gal/MWh compared to about 400 gal/MWh for nuclear plants.

Overall, an analysis of lifecycle impacts shows solar energy as one of the most environmentally sustainable sources available today. With responsible manufacturing practices and proper panel disposal, solar can provide very low-carbon electricity with minimal impacts.


In summary, solar energy requires substantial resources to harness the power of the sun and convert it into useful electricity. The main resources needed are large areas of land, raw materials like silicon and glass, water for cleaning, batteries for energy storage, transmission infrastructure, and significant labor and investments.

As solar expands its share of electricity generation, managing the scale of these resource requirements will be crucial for sustainable growth. With careful planning and innovation, the solar industry can increase efficiency, minimize environmental impacts, and make the most of the abundant renewable energy the sun provides.

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