Solar energy is a renewable source with fairly high reliability and scalability, but even the best solutions have some drawbacks. In the case of solar, the panels themselves are emissions-intensive to produce and require mined silicon, glass, and aluminum. As we continue to improve the sustainability of solar panels, here are four factors to consider in making them more environmentally-friendly.
Make photovoltaics last longer
Today, many solar panels come with a 30-year warranty, but further extending their lifespan is the first step to reducing their footprint. Using robust glass, which is incorporated on the back of the panels, extends their life, but so does proper maintenance and upkeep. Fortunately, as we transition away from fossil fuels, panel maintenance jobs will be abundantly available for those transitioning from the coal and gas sectors.
Make them repairable
Right to repair laws have garnered more attention in recent months and fortunately, solar panels’ simple structure makes them a strong candidate for effective repairs. Some ways to repair solar panels include replacing cracked glass to ensure continued operation and using an adhesive paste to reseal the back film against moisture intrusion. As we continue to improve solar technology, we should strive to make panels more easily repairable to reduce replacement needs.
Avoiding harmful materials
Although solar panels have been shown to not leak damaging materials, some do contain harmful substances. Thin-film modules contain small amounts of toxic heavy metal cadmium, and crystalline solar modules (which make up 95 percent of the market share) contain up to one gram of lead per module. Eliminating these substances from panels will ensure that they do not inflict unintentional harm on the environment.
Improving recycling technology
Making panels last longer and recyclable go hand in hand. Panels are currently partially recyclable with the aluminum frames, glass, and crystalline panels being shredded down for reuse, but there is still room to improve. Using the high-grade solar glass from old modules for new modules and recycling the high purity silicon are two changes that would move panels towards full circularity.