Environmental Impact of SOLAR PANELS

The annual increase in global energy consumption, along with environmental issues and concerns is playing a pivotal role in shifting toward sustainable and renewable energy. Among various non-conventional sources of energy, Solar Energy stands out as it has the potential to minimise climate change and pollution and protect ecosystems, wildlife, and human civilisations...

Solar power is very cheap and cost-effective compared to other sources of energy generation. They are also abundant and suitable for various applications. The maintenance cost of solar power systems is low. It has longevity of up to 25 years. The main demerit is the fact that they are subject to weather conditions. So, we require an energy storage system that will add to the overall cost of the technology.

The growth of solar power has increased exponentially over a few decades. It has evolved from small-scale applications to mainstream electricity sources. Solar power generation is forecast to nearly about double by 2028 compared to this year, continuously breaking records over the forecast period to reach almost 700 GW.

Positive Impacts

Solar energy production is a great example of clean and emission-free energy generation methods compared to the use of fossil fuels, which release harmful gases like carbon dioxide, leading to issues such as acid rain, smog, and health problems. Solar energy also helps to mitigate climate change as the emission of greenhouse gases is low, hence minimizing the adverse effects such as changes in rainfall patterns, melting of snow and ice caps, global warming, and erratic monsoons.

Solar energy systems, mainly photovoltaic panels (solar panels), play an important role in reducing the dependency on fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, which have been the primary sources of global energy production for centuries. However, their extraction, refinement, and combustion processes resulted in significant environmental degradation and health problems. Meanwhile, solar energy harnesses the power of sunlight, which is an abundant and renewable source to generate electricity.

One of the key advantages of solar panels is the flexibility of installation, which contributes to their widespread adoption and accessibility. Unlike traditional power plants, which require a large and dedicated area for installation – solar panels can be installed on a wide range of surfaces. In densely populated urban areas where open space is minimal, it can be installed on rooftops of existing infrastructure without the need for additional land acquisition. Solar panels can be installed on non-traditional surfaces such as highways, water bodies, and parking lots, maximizing land use efficiency. Advanced solar panel designs and technologies have led to the development of Building-Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV), which easily integrates solar panels into building facades, windows, and roofing materials.

Solar Panel installation plays an important role in reducing air pollution by displacing the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Different from conventional power plants fuelled by coal, oil, and gas, which emit harmful pollutants such as nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter, solar PV systems produce electricity without emitting any pollutants during operation. As the emission of these pollutants decreases, the ambient air quality is improved, reduces water use for energy production, and provides ecosystem services for host communities.

Negative Impacts

The production of solar panels requires a large amount of energy, starting from the mining of raw materials to manufacturing and transportation. A basic material for making solar modules is quartz, it undergoes extensive cleaning and processing, and semiconductor processing and the production of silicon-grade solar panels involves the use of chemicals, which can pose disposal challenges and environmental risks.

Ground-mounted solar panel installations can disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats. Small mammals and reptiles may be disturbed by the presence of solar panel structures, leading to changes in their behaviour and migration patterns. According to studies, animals like tortoises may become disoriented and deterred from the usual path due to solar installation.

Land used for solar panel installation may experience a decrease in fertility as the solar panels block sunlight from reaching the ground. This can hamper plant growth and impact soil quality, leading to changes in local ecosystems. In addition to that changes in land use patterns can affect the natural balance of ecosystems and disturb the related biodiversity.

Solar energy systems are having an unintended negative impact that leads to the exhaustion of underground water – and there is a reduction in groundwater level. This is because solar panels need to be cleaned regularly for maximum yield of energy in which water is used as a cleaning agent.

According to some recent studies, although solar energy systems do not have any direct impacts on aquatic ecosystems, it is found that the installation of solar panels can increase sediment runoff into water bodies, affecting water quality and aquatic habitats. Additionally, the change in water temperature and flow pattern may impact aquatic species such as mussels and fish, leading to disturbances in their population and habitats.

Impact of Recycling and Disposal of Solar Panels

The manufacturing, recycling, and disposal of solar panels are critical aspects of the assessment of the environmental impact of solar energy. While solar panels help in clean energy generation, their end-of-life management has challenges that must be addressed to minimize environmental harm.

Studies have shown the potential for leaching problems associated with solar panels, particularly if they are not properly disposed of or recycled. PV panels contain materials such as silicon wafers and encapsulation made of ethyl vinyl acetate, which may release hazardous substances under specific conditions and leaching can result in the contamination of soil, water, and ecosystems, posing a risk to the environment.

The importance of responsible end-of-life management must be recognized, and several recycling programs must be established to facilitate the proper recycling and disposal of solar panels. This program mostly focuses on recovering valuable materials from waste or non-operational solar panels, such as silicon, metals, and glass for reuse in new manufacturing processes. By this, we can conserve valuable resources, and the environmental impact of waste disposal can be minimized.

Recycling Process of PV Panels

PV cycle distinguishes between silicon photovoltaic modules and non-silicon photovoltaic panels. Silicon solar panels share a similarity with other glass products such as windshields. PV cycle benefits from significant synergies with the glass recycling industry. The process involved in recycling solar panels consists of three main steps.

Preparation phase

The first step involves examining the aluminium frames and junction boxes of the used solar panels, then manually removing them.

Shredding and processing

Disassembled, the photovoltaic module is fed into a shredder. Then it is sent down a glass recycling conveyor belt to be manually pre-sorted. One side is dedicated to the grinding of the laminates and the other to the extraction of the materials.

Separation and other micro-recycling of simple materials

The main output materials extracted:

  • Metals such as aluminium or copper
  • Glass
  • Silicon particles
  • Plastic
  • The average recycling quota is 94.7%.


In brief, we can conclude that solar energy offers significant environmental benefits, but it is essential to address some of the challenges mainly related to the production, installation, recycling, and disposal of solar panels to ensure the long-term sustainability of renewable solar energy systems. Promoting research, innovation, and proper user policy can lead to the development of effective solutions for the responsible management of solar panel waste, minimizing environmental impacts, and maximizing resource efficiency.

Diptiman Mohanta is a Student in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Parala Maharaja Engineering College, Berhampur, Odisha, India.

Dr. Sarat Kumar Sahoo is a Professor in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Parala Maharaja Engineering College, Berhampur, Odisha, India.

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