Carbon Footprint of Solar Panel 4x More Than Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | April 4, 2024

Man wonders about the carbon footprint of nuclear power vs the carbon footprint of solar panels while looking at carbon footprint emissions clouds from nuclear power and solar panels.

The carbon footprint of nuclear power, solar, and wind and other sustainable technologies is less than gas or coal and are climate-friendly options the world needs.

But, did you know that nuclear has a footprint four times less than solar?

It’s true. Solar panels, although an excellent source of green technology, have a much larger footprint than nuclear energy because of the manufacturing and disposal of the panels.

Understanding why the carbon footprint of nuclear power is lower than solar panels is an important step in finding clean energy options.

What Are the CO2 Emissions by Energy Source? Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power vs Solar vs Wind

Everyone uses energy every day for various reasons, and since human activities are the leading cause of emissions, energy sources are expected to impact the environment.

The following breakdown helps you determine the CO2 emissions per kWh by energy source by lifecycle.1

Graph that shows CO2 emissions by energy source.

Energy source Emissions (gCO2e per kWh)
Coal 820
Biomass (co-firing) 740
Natural gas 490
Biomass (dedicated) 230
Solar PV (Utility) 48
Solar PV (Roof) 41
Geothermal 38
Solar concentrated 27
Hydropower 24
Ocean 17
Nuclear 12
Wind (offshore) 12
Wind (onshore) 11

The wind is the best option for the environment compared to all other energy sources, as most of its emissions come from the construction of farms. Nuclear and tidal energy sources tie in third place for the most sustainable power.

TVA Douglas Dam hydro electric dam in Sevierville, Tennessee.

As expected, coal is the heaviest emitter of all other power sources, followed closely by biomass. If the planet wants to target climate goals starting with energy, switching the two for eco-friendlier options is crucial.

What Is a Nuclear Power Carbon Footprint?

Unlike other power sources, nuclear power operation doesn’t emit CO2 since the reactors don’t cause any pollution.

However, the mining and processing of the uranium ore does require energy, but unlike solar panels, this is a very small amount.

Nuclear power relies on radioactive material for electricity production, and emissions occur at various stages through its life cycle.

Nuclear power is number three on the list of the lowest emitting energy sources. It accounts for only 12g of carbon per kWh on each life cycle.

Therefore, besides the stigma surrounding it and the public’s concerns, nuclear energy credits remain one of the safest solutions to clean, recyclable energy. However, it makes up only 10% of the world’s electricity supply.2

Carbon Footprint: Nuclear Power Building

The carbon footprint of nuclear power involves the plant’s construction, uranium mining and processing, and transportation of the end product. The following processes contribute to emissions from nuclear power.

  1. Construction: A nuclear plant consists of buildings, reactor vessels, pumps, steam lines, generators, and other essential components which require machinery that is heavy emitters.
  2. Mining: Uranium mining is similar to coal extraction, which entails massive emissions, generating around 1.9-5.1 billion tons yearly.
  3. Milling – this step is the extraction part, where the manufacturers crush the ore and use sulfuric acid.
  4. Enrichment – here, the u-235 concentration increases between 3.5%- 5% through the centrifugal process where the U-238 separates from the other isotope.
  5. Fuel fabrication – the ceramic pellets form from the fuel by pressing uranium oxide under extremely high temperatures. This process needs about 27 fuel tons annually for a 1000 MW reactor.
  6. Transportation – after all the processes are complete, the manufacturers must transport the nuclear fuel to plants, using engines that run on diesel (consuming one gallon of the fuel accounts for 22.38 CO2 pounds)

Why Does the Public Believe Nuclear Power Plant Carbon Footprint Is Too High?

The demand for nuclear power steadily increased until the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The incident drastically changed the public’s view on the need for nuclear power, significantly impacting the global rate of use of the power source.

However, the rate was still containable 25 years on until another bigger blow to the industry in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. The industry suffered another setback, and more people showed their distrust.

These disasters caused massive lethal emissions into the atmosphere forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. The only way forward is to ensure that the power plants don’t suffer that fate again, although it may take a while to regain the public’s trust.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power (CO2 Per kWh)?

Carbon footprint is an effective way to measure the impact of human activities on the environment, and it starts with checking the energy sources that everybody uses daily. It factors in the greenhouse gas emissions across the energy’s life cycles.

Graphic that shows the CO2 emissions by energy source.

The nuclear CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity stand at 12 grams, making it one of the climate-friendliest power sources in the world, despite the public’s doubts. Geothermal, solar, natural gas, and coal are all significantly heavier emitters than nuclear power.

How Dangerous Is Nuclear Energy?

While the production and use of nuclear energy don’t negatively impact the environment, sometimes the power can be disastrous in case of accidents or deliberate attacks.1 Human error can cause devastating effects like the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

Such meltdowns lead to relocations, deaths, and other long-term effects on the countries and people involved. Secondly, nuclear disasters are responsible for cancer risks among the residents of the neighboring regions. The workers and children are at higher risk due to radiation exposure.

Lastly, terrorists can target nuclear power plants to cause explosions and risk the lives of the surrounding populations. Therefore, it is crucial for governments to monitor the plants’ operations and guard them against attacks; otherwise, there will be massive loss of lives.

Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power: Environmental Benefits

The following examples show the impact of nuclear management on the environment.

  • Zero emissions – nuclear power plants don’t cause any emissions into the atmosphere, making it clean energy. Instead of heating materials, the heat from fission generates steam to turn turbines and form electricity.
  • Lass waste – nuclear energy production doesn’t account for waste production caused by other energy sources since no byproducts exist.
  • Less land use – a 1000 MW plant in the country needs about a square mile, several times less space than what you need for solar or wind farms.
  • Local energy production – thanks to the Energy Independence Security Act, the US doesn’t have to source energy from foreign countries. The law promotes self-reliance and more production of renewable energy.
  • Combat of climate change – unlike coal’s 820 g CO2 emissions, nuclear generates only 12 g, and more use reduces the adverse effects caused by global warming like rise in sea levels, ice melting and increased temperatures.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

One of the main advantages is that the carbon footprint of nuclear power is lower than other energy sources like fossil fuels. It is cleaner and emission-free, without GHG during production, only generating water vapor from its cooling towers.

Experts also strongly suggest that nuclear energy is a giant step towards global decarbonization. Countries with these power plants keep recording a massive reduction in their carbon intensities thanks to building more reactors.

Additionally, in matters of health, nuclear is safer for people than fossil fuels that generate a lot of toxic waste emissions. On the other hand, nuclear energy also has its downsides, with the main reason behind anti-nuclear movements being the weaponization of plants.

Using nuclear energy to make bombs and accidental disasters leads to loss of lives, as evidenced by history. Besides that, there are cancer risks and radiation sickness even years later. There is also the constant fear of technology falling into the wrong hands, despite treaties to end its weaponization.

What Are the Effects of Radioactive Waste on the Environment?

Nuclear wastes are the byproducts of nuclear energy production from plants. One challenge that needs immediate addressing is managing the used fuel after power generation because this waste is highly radioactive when exposed to the environment.

It can lead to plutonium emission, a lethal chemical to humans and animals. Exposure causes the growth of cancerous cells, genetic damage, and abnormal mutations in all living things, hindering reproduction.

These wastes stay active for hundreds of years, and the results can be devastating without proper management plans. The experts may seal the waste in steel drums reinforced with concrete; there are risks of accidents and leaks, exposing the air to the chemicals.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels?

The carbon footprint solar panels are the first consideration when looking for an environmentally-friendly energy source for your home or business. It helps if you want to reduce your energy bill or want all your tasks to be kinder to the environment.

Most of the emissions from solar panels come from manufacturing components like silicon, silver, copper, and other materials. However, solar energy is still significantly better for the environment than sources like coal and natural gas.

Solar panels are responsible for 48- 50 grams of carbon emissions in their first few years of service, which is ten times less the carbon footprint of non-renewable power. In three years of use, the panels will have produced enough energy to offset the emissions from their production.

Given that they can serve for 30-40 years,the energy does balance out, however, the disposal also generates a carbon footprint.

What Are the Solar CO2 Emissions Per kWh?

If you want to switch from fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources and are considering purchasing solar panels, you are on the right track to offsetting your carbon emissions. Setting up panels on your home or business roof will save a lot of money and energy in the long run.

One way to know is to use the CO2 emissions per kWh calculator, which tells you the environmental impact of solar power. Experts indicate that the lifetime emissions from solar energy are about 48 grams of carbon per kWh, making it one of the top earth-friendly energy sources since it is renewable.

Solar energy calculator tools are elaborate ways to help you calculate your carbon footprint by entering a few essential details. The system asks for your roof size, energy output, how much money you have saved in the first year and other data depending on the tool’s design.

This calculation will highlight how much carbon you have saved by installing the panels. You will notice that a solar system will save your business a lot of money and reduce your home or business’s carbon footprint.

Factors Affecting the Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy Sources?

Considering the carbon footprint of energy sources (renewable and non-renewable power) is critical. While renewable energy sources are kinder to the environment, they are also responsible for emissions.

  • Solar

Solar farms sit on massive land sizes, leading to habitat loss unless you install them on a small scale or atop buildings. Industries also need lots of water to construct PV components and other necessary chemicals. It is also crucial to dispose of the wastes properly, or they will be a hazard to the environment.

  • Wind

Wind farming also requires a lot of lands, although farmers can use the parcel for livestock herding, hiking trails, and crop growing. One challenge with the turbines is their noise pollution near residential areas, and their huge blades are a hazard to flying wildlife.

  • Geothermal

The main issue with geothermal energy is how it can trigger earthquakes when close to fault lines. Most of the tremors occur in areas coinciding with high geothermal resource concentration.

  • Tidal

This renewable energy adversely impacts aquatic life—their construction and running lead to noise pollution and interference of the turbines with wildlife.

  • Biomass

Biomass plants are heavy CO2 emitters besides accelerating deforestation since more trees are needed for more power. GHG is released into the environment, and more trees are cut down, meaning lower carbon sequestration.

Environmental Impact of Solar Energy: Carbon Footprint From Solar

The likely environmental impacts of solar power vary based on the technology used in constructing the panels. There are usually two categories, photovoltaic cells (PV) and Concentrating solar plants (CSP).

The solar farming scale also matters because it can range from small rooftop PV to utility scales and massive projects. Solar systems are responsible for habitat loss, excessive land, and water use, and hazardous materials involved in their manufacture.

However, solar power also boasts environmentally-friendly aspects, unlike non-renewable energy sources. For instance, it helps reduce GHG emissions, which helps battle climate change and protect the entire ecosystem.

Once you know how to calculate CO2 emissions from solar, you will realize that it is the ideal power source. It is critical in improving the air quality since using it doesn’t cause any emissions, and small-scale use like installation on rooftops also doesn’t require massive land use, saving natural wildlife habitats.

How and Why To Use Solar Panels Carbon Footprint Calculator?

Carbon footprint calculators are the only way for individuals and corporations to quantify their emission levels and find ways to offset them. Everyone has a carbon footprint from various daily activities, from the foot they eat to the energy they use.

Using solar panels instead of fossil fuels saves a lot of power and money and is kinder to the planet, but the only way to determine the level is by using carbon footprint calculators.

By disclosing details about the panel’s surface area and how long you use the electricity daily, you can establish how much power you save compared to other sources. It helps reduce your household carbon footprint and applies to businesses when you want to turn to eco-friendlier practices.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction?

Compared to other renewable and non-renewable energy sources, wind CO2 emissions per kWh are the lowest, followed by nuclear energy. It is gradually growing in demand as people opt for cleaner energy sources with the lowest emissions.2

Wind energy has the lowest CO2 per life cycle, accounting for only 11 for onshore and 12 grams for offshore sources. These low readings make it the best option for countries seeking better power options since it is renewable and most emissions come from the turbine construction.

The emissions come from the construction of wind farms and electricity delivery. You may need a lot of components to create a wind farm, and the entire process leads to high carbon emissions: the rotor, tower, generator, and other components all impact the environment.

How Long Does It Take for a Solar Panel To Become Carbon Neutral?

Solar power is one of the cleanest energy sources, and unlike other non-renewable sources, it can achieve carbon neutrality in a few years. The carbon footprint of solar panels depends on the technology, chemicals, and machinery used in manufacturing.

However, it generally takes about three years after installation for the solar panels to become carbon neutral. Given that the system has a lifespan of 20-30 years, you can use it for a long time after achieving neutrality.

How Much CO2 Is Produced Per kWh of Electricity?

The energy-related emission rose dramatically in 2018 by 1.7% to 33.1 Gt of carbon. Emissions from fossil fuels escalated as the industry accounted for about 2/3 of the increase. Coal was particularly responsible for these high numbers as developed countries produced more to power their projects.

Increased emissions are usually propelled by high energy consumption by stronger global economies. Another reason for the increase is the deteriorated weather conditions in some parts of the world, leading to high demand for power for cooling and heating.

Power source Electricity generation in the US (Million kWh)
Coal 757,763
Petroleum 13,665
Natural gas 1,402,438

How Solar Panels Reduce Carbon Footprint?

Countries can reduce their carbon emissions by focusing more on renewable energy efficiency, especially wind and solar sources. Instead of relying on power from coal which leads to massive emissions, solar panel carbon offsets are the ideal way to tap into the sun’s power.

It is clean as it doesn’t cause any emissions and is cheaper than other sources. It also takes a few years before carbon neutrality and serves the user for more than 20 years.

The carbon footprint of solar power may be four times higher than the carbon footprint of nuclear power. Still, it is significantly better for the environment than coal and natural gas. More people adopting it means a reduction in energy-based emissions by a large percentage.

CO2 Saved per kWh Solar Calculator vs Coal and Natural Gas

Going by the estimate of solar power producing 40 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, a project can account for about 2,700 tons of CO2 emissions. It may seem excessive but nothing compared to energy from fossil fuels.

Taking 1,000 g of emissions, a coal plant will cause 67,500 tons of GHG, which is 25 times higher than a solar farm. In contrast, natural gas emits around 27,000 tons of GHG, ten times higher than solar power.3

The Efficiency of Renewable Energy vs Fossil Fuels

While renewable energy comes from natural sources that replenish themselves with time, fossil fuel power sources can take thousands and millions of years to deplete naturally. Despite that, the US energy generation mostly comes from natural gas and coal.

Here is a table of renewable energy emissions vs. fossil fuels.

Graph that shows renewable energy emissions vs fossil fuels.

Energy source Usage
Natural gas 34%
Coal 30%
Nuclear 15%
Renewables 15%
Oil 1%

Renewable power like wind, sun, and geothermal are more efficient sources and are cheaper than fossil fuels. They are also cleaner, leading to significantly lower emissions than non-renewable energies.

Considering renewable energy vs. fossil fuels, the former is the better option for the environment, explaining why they are growing faster and increasing in demand.

Residential Solar Panels and Their Impact on the Reduction of Carbon Emissions

By installing solar panels in your home, you avoid using fossil fuels with a high carbon footprint. Solar power is cleaner, doesn’t lead to emissions unless caused by their manufacture, and you will have achieved carbon neutrality in a few years.

You will also save a lot of money, and in the long run, as more people adopt it in residential or commercial buildings, the lower demand for coal and natural gas, which are heavy offenders.

Residential solar panels don’t need massive land parcels to set up since you can install them on your roof, which is enough area to serve the entire building.

CO2 Emissions From Electricity Generation by Country

According to data from CO2 per kWh electricity by country, the developed regions are responsible for most energy-based carbon emissions. The table represents the emissions from various coal combustion in the top 10 countries with the highest energy-based carbon emissions.4

Graph that shows CO2 Emissions from coal per country.

Country Emissions From Coal (Million Metric Tons)
China 7,421
India 1,588
United States 889
Japan 403
South Africa 394
Russia 357
Indonesia 301
South Korea 283
Germany 199
Kazakhstan 172

Energy is a vital part of daily human life, and everyone uses it for various tasks. There are renewable and non-renewable electricity sources, but the former is kinder to the environment since it emits fewer carbon emissions.

Coal, biomass, and natural gas are the largest contributors to the carbon emissions from energy sources, while solar, wind, and nuclear systems are the cleanest forms. Emissions from the three are mostly from their raw materials and plant building, but they don’t have any emissions from their usage.

If governments want to reduce their energy’s carbon footprint, the best place to start is to adopt more renewable energy, and the carbon footprint of nuclear power is one of the lowest.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power

How Much Carbon Does 1 Mw of Solar Offset?

Setting up solar panels in your home or business can help you offset about 50 grams of CO2e per kWh generated. Generally, a home fitted with solar power has around a 5-kWh system. If you calculate that with an average of 5 hours of energy usage daily, the panels can offset about 250,000 g or 250 kg of carbon daily. This rate equates to 550 pounds or a ton of offsets for solar power running for four days.

What Is Biomass CO2 Emissions per kWh?

Biomass is considered renewable but has the fourth highest level of emissions compared to other sources. It emits 230 grams of CO2e per kWh produced in each life cycle and has a massive environmental impact. It is also responsible for deforestation as it comes from wood sources and the reduction of carbon sequestration makes it worse for the ecosystem.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels Under Microscope?

The carbon footprint of a solar panel in the US is about 25.8 kg CO2e for each MWh, which is 15 times lower than emissions from gas. The two solar forms have different environmental impacts based on their creation. For instance, CSP’s footprint is around 20 grams of C02 per kWh, while PV plants account for 12-24 grams per kWh. The emission in the solar industry is majorly from the mining or raw materials, processing of the semiconductors, and every process leading to the creation of the

What Is Nuclear Energy Carbon Footprint: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power plants do not directly emit carbon emissions during operation or processing. It explains why it is the third least polluting energy source after wind energy forms. In a life cycle, nuclear power emits about 12 grams of CO2e per kWh of electricity, making it a relatively clean energy source. However, one thing to worry about is high radioactive waste leaks that devastate humans and other living organisms in the area.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of One Solar Panel?

Solar panels are clean energy sources, and their carbon footprint is primarily from mining raw materials and processing. These power sources cause 48-50 g of emissions in the first three years of use, after which the panels become carbon neutral.

Why Is Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Important?

Individuals who are environmental enthusiasts know exactly why is sustainable use of natural resources important. Governments must promote the proper use of natural resources to improve the population’s quality of life and preserve them for the coming generations. Sustainable use also helps protect the ecosystem and wildlife to avoid pollution and unnecessary usage.


1Steffen Schlömer (ed.), Technology-specific Cost and Performance Parameters, Annex III of Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from <>

2World Nuclear Association. Carbon Dioxide Emissions From Electricity. 2022, from <>

3US Energy Information Administration. Electric power sector CO2 emissions drop as generation mix shifts from coal to natural gas. 2021, from <>

4Tiseo, Ian. Statistica. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion worldwide in 2021, by select country, from <>