9 Environmental Impacts of Photovoltaic Systems

Simply put, we are discussing the effects of solar energy systems on the environment when we discuss the environmental impacts of photovoltaic systems.

The sun is a massive energy source that has only recently been discovered. It offers abundant resources that can produce sustainable, clean, and non-polluting electricity, meaning that there are no emissions that contribute to global warming.

It has been found in recent years that solar energy may be captured and stored for usage globally with the hopes of eventually displacing traditional energy sources. With everyone’s attention shifting to greener energy sources, solar energy has become increasingly important.

Currently, solar energy accounts for 1.7% of global electricity production. Both the production techniques and the materials used have seen significant advances.

Environmental Impacts of Photovoltaic Systems

Before solar energy can be utilized as a genuinely clean energy source, a few environmental obstacles still need to be addressed. Among them are

  • Land Use
  • Water Use
  • Effects on Water, Air, and Soil Resources
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Solar Panel Production
  • Semiconductor Cleaning
  • Pollutants and Solar Waste
  • Environmental Risks of Mining
  • Environmental Impact of Transporting Solar Panels 

1. Land Use

Larger utility-scale solar installations may cause worries about habitat loss and land degradation, depending on where they are located. The total land area needed varies according to the technology, location, topography, and solar resource intensity.

Utility-scale photovoltaic systems are estimated to require between 3.5 and 10 acres per megawatt, whereas CSP facilities are estimated to require between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt.

Solar installations have less chance of coexisting with agricultural uses than wind facilities. Utility-scale solar systems can, however, lessen their negative effects on the environment by being installed in less desirable areas, such as brownfields, former mine sites, or existing transmission and traffic lines.

Smaller solar PV arrays have less of an influence on land use and can be installed on residential or commercial properties.

2. Water Use

Solar photovoltaic cells can generate electricity without the need for water. Still, some water is utilized in the production of solar PV components, just like in any other manufacturing process.

Water is necessary for cooling in concentrated solar thermal plants (CSP), as it is in other thermal electric plants. The type of cooling system, plant location, and plant design all affect how much water is used.

For every megawatt-hour of power generated, CSP plants with cooling towers and wet-recirculating technology remove 600–650 gallons of water. Because water is not lost as steam, CSP facilities using once-through cooling technology have higher water withdrawal levels but lower overall water use.

Nearly 90% less water is used in CSP facilities when dry-cooling technology is implemented. Lower efficiency and increased expenses are the costs associated with these water savings, though. Furthermore, the efficiency of the dry-cooling technique decreases dramatically above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Effects on Water, Air, and Soil Resources

Large-scale solar facility development necessitates grading and clearing, which changes drainage pathways, compacts the soil and increases erosion.

Water consumption by central tower systems for cooling is a concern in arid environments because rising water demands could put a strain on available supplies and lead to chemical spills from the facilities that could contaminate groundwater or the surrounding area.

Building solar power facilities can provide risks to air quality, much like developing any sizable industrial complex. These dangers include the spread of diseases carried by soil and a rise in airborne particulate matter that contaminates water supplies.

4. Hazardous Materials

Many hazardous compounds are employed in the PV cell production process; the majority of these materials are used to clean and purify the semiconductor surface. These substances include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone.

They are comparable to those utilized in the general semiconductor business. The kind of cell, the degree of cleaning required, and the size of the silicon wafer all influence the quantity and kind of chemicals employed.

There are concerns for workers who breathe in silicon dust. To prevent worker exposure to toxic chemicals and to guarantee that manufacturing waste products are disposed of appropriately, PV manufacturers are required to abide by U.S. rules.

Compared to conventional silicon photovoltaic cells, thin-film PV cells contain several more hazardous components, such as gallium arsenide, copper-indium gallium diselenide, and cadmium telluride. Inadequate handling and disposal of these items may present significant risks to the environment or public health.

Manufacturers are financially motivated, therefore, to make sure that these extremely precious and frequently uncommon materials are recycled as opposed to discarded.

5. Solar Panel Production

The manufacturing of solar panels uses a lot of resources, including industrial materials, fossil fuels, and large volumes of water. The main energy source utilized in the manufacturing of solar panels is coal, which is directly related to higher carbon emissions.

In the process of making solar panels, sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid are both utilized. Strict rules about the handling and elimination of hazardous wastewater are necessary for both of these. In the meantime, workers at facilities that produce solar panels need to be protected from these dangerous substances. This entails controlled safeguards.

According to studies, during the production process, silicon particles are discharged into the environment and cause silicosis in those who have been known to come into touch with them. It has been demonstrated that individuals who are exposed to silicon particles during the production process can develop silicosis.

6. Semiconductor Cleaning

Photovoltaic (PV) cells are made of semiconductor wafers that are cleaned using toxic chemical substances. These consist of sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids.

To eliminate damage and create the proper surface texture, this cleaning process is crucial. Hydrofluoric acid, on the other hand, can corrode tissue and decalcify bones, making it fatal to an unprotected person. It must be handled and disposed of very carefully.

Since sodium hydroxide is easier to handle and dispose of and presents less of a risk to employees’ health, it may be a safer option.

7. Pollutants and Solar Waste

Since the first few installed sets of panels are only now starting to expire, the problem of recycling outdated solar panels has not garnered much attention. The handling of expired photovoltaic panels is becoming a critical issue now that their expiration is approaching.

Although lead and cadmium are present in solar panels—both of which are known to cause cancer—they are primarily composed of glass. As a result, there are worries about contaminants’ safety. Impurity removal will cost extra to recycle these components.

At the moment, outdated solar panels are frequently disposed of in landfills since they can’t be easily repurposed. Because the panels contain harmful chemicals, there are significant environmental dangers associated with this technique.

Rainwater has the potential to discharge and wash away cadmium, which then seeps into the soil and contaminates the surrounding environment.

8. Environmental Risks of Mining

The majority of modern technology uses rare minerals in its manufacturing. Similar to this, photovoltaic panels make use of over 19 of these uncommon minerals.

These are limited resources that are assiduously harvested in many places across the globe. As nations work to increase the production of renewable energy and satisfy consumer demand for technology, there is an incredibly high demand for these minerals.

Research indicates that there won’t be enough indium, a component used in photovoltaic panels, to meet the tremendous demand and fuel this green revolution.

These results are alarming, and the impact of mining makes them even more so. It has been demonstrated that mining causes sinkholes, biodiversity loss, and the poisoning of neighboring water streams by extremely acidic metal waste.

9. Environmental Impact of Transporting Solar Panels 

Transportation-related emissions from solar panels pose an additional problem. Although made all over the world, solar panels are mostly produced in China, the United States, and Europe. Furthermore, parts for solar panels made in one nation might need to be shipped to another.

Honestly, it’s challenging to estimate the precise carbon footprint associated with each step of the production process of any kind of solar panel. The effects of solar panel production on the environment have not been extensively studied or documented.

However, according to reports, the Coalition on Materials Research Transparency is attempting to quantify and disclose the carbon footprints of mining, manufacturing, and shipping solar panels.

It is noteworthy that the quantity of carbon emissions generated during the production of solar panels is far lower than that of conventional energy facilities and much lower than that of coal mining, fracking, or oil drilling.

A common issue with solar panels, however, is what happens to them after their typical 25-year lifespan, which goes beyond output.


Although solar energy is not flawless, in general, it has a positive net environmental and financial impact.

Yes, mining and producing solar panels take enormous quantities of energy, and yes, the process involves the use of chemicals.  However, contrary to what the data indicates, these two indisputable facts do not imply that solar panels have a net negative effect.

In less than two years, the energy used to produce a solar panel will be recovered. Even when solar energy is considered during the production and processing stages, the emissions produced are 3–25 times lower than when the same quantity of energy is produced using fossil fuels. 

utilizing solar energy has fewer emissions than utilizing any fossil fuel, notably coal, which makes it a very advantageous technology.


A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.

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