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Solar energy is a renewable energy source that captures the heat from the sun. There are three primary technologies to do this. The most common is solar panels. But there are also concentrated solar power and solar heating and cooling systems. In 2021, 3.6 % of the world’s electricity generation came from this source. Today, it is the third largest renewable source of electricity (after hydropower and wind).

Around the world, solar energy is considered a big part of a green and sustainable future. It is a renewable source known for not releasing any greenhouse gases. However, it is important to note that the industry of making solar panels does release emissions. More so, the extraction of minerals for the panels is an energy-intensive practice. Therefore, solar panels must be as sustainable and long-lasting as possible. Read more on this below.

Alternatives for solar energy

As mentioned, the sun’s energy gets captured using solar panels, concentrated solar power (CSP) and solar heating and cooling (SHC) systems. The most common alternative is solar panels, seen worldwide (see picture). Solar panels convert sunlight into electrical energy through photovoltaic (PV) panels. Therefore, this kind of technology is known as PV.

Concentrated solar power uses the heat from the sun (through thermal energy) to drive electric turbines. In contrast, solar heating and cooling systems collect thermal energy to provide hot water. This water gets used for air heating or conditioning.

Pros and Cons of solar panels

Solar panels are known to be good for the environment, in contrast to energy from fossil fuels. This fact is partly because they do not generate any greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as previously mentioned, it is not that simple. To decide whether a product is sustainable, one has to look at its entire lifecycle. In other words, are the parts of a solar panel produced sustainably?

The most common type of solar panels gets made from silicon. Which in itself comes from silica, a substance found in sand. A higher demand for solar panels is related to a higher production of silicon. A process that releases greenhouse gas emissions and can use fossil fuel-based energy sources. The production of solar panels has also used other substances that can harm the environment.

In addition, solar panels consist of glass, aluminium and plastic in about 90 % of the production. It is also common for solar cells to contain small amounts of silver, tin and lead. These substances can be toxic to nature. Furthermore, the increased demand for solar cells comes with an increased demand for these substances.

A sustainable production

Various global initiatives are working towards more sustainable production of solar panels. Yet, many are taking the opportunity to make money from producing cheap and irresponsibly manufactured solar panels. It is crucial to consider these facts when using solar energy. One way to do this is by reassuring that the solar panels are produced from sustainable productions and will last for a very long time. This way, the energy gained from the solar panel can compensate for the emissions from the production.

Examples of sources: IEA, SEIA


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