The sun is an abundant energy source, providing us with clean and sustainable energy. An hour of sunlight received by the earth is calculated to be sufficient to meet our energy needs for a year! However, it is not without its potential disadvantages.
The environmental disadvantages of solar energy include habitat loss, alteration in land use, the strain on water resources, exposure to hazardous materials, and pollution of soil, air, and water resources.
Larger utility-scale solar plants require a vast landscape for the installation of solar panels for the collection of energy. This means huge tracts of land need to be cleared of everything including vegetation. This can directly lead to the destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitats.
In addition to this, the construction activities during the installation of large-scale solar power plants can lead to higher levels of air and noise pollution affecting the flora and fauna of a bigger neighborhood. Diverting water for the manufacture and cooling systems of solar panels is also found to have a negative impact on the wildlife.
Read more about Powering a House with Solar Panels Myths & Facts
There are problems with solar panels as well. The toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of solar panels may lead to the degradation of water resources and land, which in turn have an adverse influence on the existing wildlife of the area.
Alteration of land use
Larger utility-scale solar plants necessitate extensive parcels of land dedicated solely to the installation of solar panels for energy collection. Depending on the solar intensity, topography, and the technology used, a utility-scale solar power plant can take up to 3.5 – 16.5 acres per MW of power generated. This is one of the major negatives of solar energy.
Unlike wind power facilities, solar parks cannot share land space with agricultural fields or ranches. At the time of setting up the plant, a change in existing land use is inevitable, irrespective of whether it was used for residential purposes, agricultural needs, forest land, or recreational areas.
In addition to altering present land use, a solar farm may also lead to degradation of land due to exploration, extraction, manufacturing, and disposal of solar panels. The energy footprints on the land may go up so high that it would be too difficult or even impossible to return to its earlier state.
This solution to this conundrum is choosing locations of low-value and wastelands such as brownfields, disused or unusable mines, and along transportation and transmission corridors.
Strain on water resources
Though the generation of solar energy doesn’t require water directly, its use is unavoidable during the manufacturing and maintenance of solar panels and in the cooling system of Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP). This is a significant drawback of solar energy.
The advancements in technology have minimized the use of water in the manufacturing stage, whereas the introduction of robotic cleaning devices has made it possible to control water consumption or even in some cases to manage without water.
All thermal electric plants need water as a coolant. The quantity of water required is determined by the location, design, and the model of the cooling system installed. CSP plants employing wet-recirculating technology in its cooling towers use 600-650 gallons of water per MWh of electricity produced.
Dry-cooling technology can bring down water consumption by 90%, but the tradeoffs are high cost and low efficiency. Moreover, this system is not practical when the temperatures cross 100°F.
Locations for solar parks and water availability is generally found not to go hand-in-hand. The locations with the best potential for harnessing solar energy tend to be in arid regions where water is already scarce. So, it is vital to weigh the pros and cons before choosing location and technology for solar power generation.
You can learn the alternatives to solar power from our “Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Sources“
Exposure to hazardous materials
During the manufacturing process of the photovoltaic cells, many hazardous materials are used for the cleaning and purification of the surface of the semiconductor. These chemicals include sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, methyl chloroform, hydrogen fluoride, and acetone. This is an important downside of solar panels.
The amount of chemical required depends on the type of cell manufactured, the level of cleaning needed, and the size of the semiconductor sheet. The workers in the manufacturing units face the risk of inhalation of silicon dust, the most commonly used semiconductor material. This is in addition to the risks posed by hazardous chemicals.
The newer thin-film PV cells present a graver threat than the traditional silicon PV cells. It contains more toxic chemicals such as copper indium gallium diselenide, gallium arsenide, and cadmium telluride.
There are governmental guidelines in place for the proper handling and disposal of these chemicals. However, flouting of these guidelines can comprise the health of workers involved as well as pose a public health hazard and environmental damage.
The good news is the financial incentives the manufacturers have for retrieving and recycling these materials. The high value and scarcity of the materials used in the manufacture of solar cells is a dissuading factor for their disposal in landfills.
Pollution of soil, air, and water resources
Setting up large-scale solar farms necessitate clearing and grading of vast land areas, leading to compression of soil, excessive soil erosion, and alteration of drainage channels. Cost-cutting and time-saving efforts may result in incorrect disposal of the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of solar panels, raising the risk of land, water, and air pollution.
The construction activities in the area at the time of installation of large-scale solar power plants increase the particulate matter in the air, leading to contamination of air and water resources. The release of pathogens present in the soil can increase the risk of air pollution.
Solar energy is considered to be free of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the lifecycle emissions of PV cells during the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and dismantlement are too significant to ignore.
Solar energy is not a perfect solution to our ever-expanding energy needs. It comes with a lot of benefits and advantages, but there is no denying that there are some drawbacks and limitations of solar power generation.
As none of the power generation choices known to us today are anywhere near perfect, it comes down to the one with the maximum benefits and least limitations. Solar energy scores high on being environment-friendly when compared to non-renewable energy resources.
Read Cost of Renewable Energy vs Fossil Fuels for more information.
Again, it is true that wind energy is a far better choice for the environment. But the ultimate deciding factor is the power generating potential at a given location.