Environmental Effects of Solar Energy

By Kevin Lee
Solar panels, unlike coal plants, release no harmful greenhouse gases.
michal kodym/iStock/Getty Images

Silicon, found in sand, has the remarkable ability to generate electricity when light strikes it. This "photovoltaic" effect enables sunlight to operate watches, power spacecraft, run pumps and provide electricity for homes and businesses. Clean, renewable energy from the sun seems like the perfect alternative to "dirty," nonrenewable fossil fuel, but under some conditions, that free energy impacts your environment.

Secrets to Harvesting Electricity From Sunbeams

If you were to own a solar energy business, you might market two types of technologies that produce electricity: photovoltaic, which uses silicon or other conductive substances, and solar-thermal. Solar panels containing small solar cells are good examples of photovoltaic products. Devices that use solar thermal technology focus sunlight on liquid that warms water to produce steam. Energy from the steam turns a generator that produces electricity. Solar power plants generate electricity for customers using this method.

Minor Solar Power Impacts

A solar-powered parking meter, such as one you might find in Washington, D.C., requires no fuel, and it releases no toxins into the environment. When companies create photovoltaic wafers that go into solar cells, the production process generates a small amount of hazardous material. Workers must manage it carefully to prevent environmental and health problems. When some solar cells break, they become hazardous waste and must also be handled with caution.

Solar Energy's Negative Effects on Land and Wildlife

Homes and small businesses often install solar panels on roofs. Because that installation occurs on existing developments, photovoltaic systems do not usually consume large amounts of land that you could use for something else. Solar-thermal systems, on the other hand, could use a large amount of land depending on the type of technology you use and the facility's size. If a new solar energy installation requires land use, it could have a negative impact on wildlife habitat in the area. Off-grid PV systems often have disposable batteries that store energy when the sun shines so you can use it at night. These batteries can harm the environment unless you dispose of them properly because some of them can leak toxins such as lead and sulfuric acid.

Solar Power Plants Produce More Than Electricity

Solar energy devices may not harm the environment, but operations and maintenance activities at solar energy facilities might. Excess noise, for instance, could disturb wildlife around a power plant. Equipment and structures at a facility itself could cause problems. Focused sun rays at a solar thermal plant might burn birds. Workers at solar energy facilities must also use and dispose of cleaning agents carefully to protect the environment as well as life that lives in it. Finally, concentrating solar power technologies (parabolic trough and power tower) may also generate substantial amounts of heat transfer fluids and industrial solid wastes, such as lubricating oils, compressor oils, and hydraulic fluids.

About the Author

After majoring in physics, Kevin Lee began writing professionally in 1989 when, as a software developer, he also created technical articles for the Johnson Space Center. Today this urban Texas cowboy continues to crank out high-quality software as well as non-technical articles covering a multitude of diverse topics ranging from gaming to current affairs.