Solar Panel Carbon Offsets: A Greener Way to Go Solar

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 9, 2021

Photovoltaic (PV) panels – more commonly known as “solar panels” – have become the go-to power source for shrinking your carbon footprint. Instead of relying on fossil fuels to produce electricity or other harmful processes and resources, people can draw their power directly from the sun.

At first glance, this sounds good. Yet, there is still a darker side. A research team led by Muhammad Tawalbeh, professor of Sustainable and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of Sharjah, wrote, “PV systems cannot be regarded as completely eco-friendly systems with zero-emissions.”1

Despite the public’s romanticized perception of solar panels seen through their rose-colored glasses, these systems inflict several types of damage on global ecosystems.

Whether you use solar power via the grid or your own solar panels, neutralizing your impact with solar panel carbon offsets is the best way to shrink your energy footprint.

A view of rows of solar panels on a field under a cloudy sky.

 

Solar Panels May Not Be as “Green” as You Think

Solar energy is, by far, one of the best sources of power the world has, especially for progress toward a more environmentally friendly future. Yet, it’s not without its drawbacks.

Although most people don’t realize it, these systems emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), too. Scientists report that PV systems release 14-73 g CO2-eq/kWh (kilowatt-hour) on average. Now, this is 10-53 times less than burning oil (742 g CO2-eq/kWh). Still, these are preventable emissions.1

How Solar Power Strains the Environment

Even the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) voiced their concerns about solar power years ago, particularly regarding photovoltaic (PV) solar cells and concentrating solar thermal plants, or CSP.

A CSP is a type of plant that produces electricity using mirrors to “concentrate” the sun’s energy for powering steam turbines or engines. This energy can be stored and used to make electricity whenever necessary. The US is home to about 1,815 megawatts (MWac) of CSP.2

In 2013, the UCS shed light on why these may not be the best sustainable energy source. For one, experts raised concerns about land degradation and habitat loss from site selection problems.

Experts report that PV systems require an average of 3.5-10 acres per megawatt – enough to power about 400-900 homes for an entire year. Furthermore, CSP facilities need 4-16.5 acres per megawatt, with CO2 emissions ranging from 0.08-0.2 lbs per kWh.3,4

Given the number of homes this amount of power can sustain, the acreage doesn’t seem like a lot. Yet, comparing these to wind farms reveals a critical disparity: Wind facilities can double as agricultural land, but the areas used for PV systems cannot.3

Additionally, although solar PV cells don’t need water to make electricity, manufacturers use it to make certain components. Plus, CSP facilities use it to cool hardware, depending on the cooling system, plant design, and site location. Though vital, these uses are quite resource intensive.3

For example, a CSP might consume 600-650 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Other designs require even more. Yet, the UCS suggests that switching to dry-cooling technology, a less demanding design, could reduce total water consumption by as much as 90 percent, with a few tradeoffs.3

A top view of a boat cruising in a river in Brazil, with 8 Billion Trees watermark.

This alternative offers a bit of relief for local water supplies, especially in areas that are often desirable for PV system installations (regions with dry climates). However, they’re less effective over 100֯F. Switching to more sustainable systems will require a creative approach to balance the costs and benefits.

A few logistical changes to these systems’ design, production, and installation could dramatically alter the climate impacts.1

How Can Energy Producers Reduce Solar Panels’ Impacts?

Yet, the researchers suggest that these five steps could dramatically improve solar panels’ functionality and eco-friendliness:1

  • Optimizing PV systems’ designs
  • Innovating new, more sustainable materials
  • Minimizing the use of hazardous components
  • Improving recycling practices for PV system parts
  • Better, more careful standards in site selection for PV system installation

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing how solar panels work to conduct electricity from the sun's energy.

Tawalbeh’s team estimates that these changes would reduce GHG emissions, decrease solid waste coming from solar energy systems, and help preserve water resources.1

More specifically, they estimate that merely switching to “novel manufacturing materials” would decrease PV systems’ carbon footprints by one order of magnitude. (One order of magnitude is a factor of ten.) Additionally, increasing recycling of solar cell materials would reduce GHG emissions by 42 percent.5

Experts have already begun initiating the necessary changes for implementing more sustainable solar power. Yet, these systems are in so many private homes and businesses worldwide, individuals must take part in “greening” solar energy as well.

Greenify Your Solar Power

So, your solar energy system isn’t as carbon neutral as you assumed. Now, what do you do? Well, it depends on where it’s installed and the most concerning aspects of its performance.

For instance, imagine that you only use energy from a grid partially supported by a local CSP. You don’t have any panels on your rooftop or in your backyard, but you still have a smaller footprint than others whose power grids are supplied by fossil fuels.

These take up more space than the average PV system and use significantly more harmful chemicals like hydrochloric acid, or HCl. HCl contributes to the acidification of wetlands and possibly peatlands, along with sulfuric acid, also associated with CSP facilities.3, 6, 7

In this case, it’s best to support projects that benefit the environment on a large scale to mitigate such extensive ecosystem harm.

Supporting carbon offsetting projects such as the reforestation and conservation of the Amazon Rainforest is an excellent way to continue relying on sustainable energy without excess harm to the world’s habitats.

On the other hand, you might be off-grid and draw your power from a private PV panel. If so, you’ll likely be more inclined to smaller-scale offsets you can personalize to your unique carbon footprint, or even specific solar panel carbon offsets.

In this case, it’s best to calculate your carbon footprint first. Then, you’ll have a detailed perspective on how your energy use affects the world around you. From there, you can choose the perfect afforestation plan, supporting plant diversity worldwide, from Nicaragua to Nepal.

Make Your Solar Panel Carbon Neutral

Solar panels are often thought to be the go-to power source for a carbon neutral lifestyle. It turns out that this assumption is leaving out quite a few important factors of solar panels.

Despite solar energy’s appeal as a sustainable alternative to electricity generation, it still presents several environmental hazards. However, there are better options available, such as using wind energy which can be doubled as a place to grow food, or by using solar panel carbon offsets through a carbon offset provider.

To truly go green, you must consider your part in minimizing the impacts by offsetting your PV system or local CSP. Calculate your offsets today to begin shrinking your energy footprint.


References

1Tawalbeh, M., Al-Othman, A., Kafiah, F., Abdelsalam, E., Almomani, F., & Alkasrawi, M. (2021). Environmental impacts of solar photovoltaic systems: A critical review of recent progress and future outlook. Science of The Total Environment, 759, 143528. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143528

2Solar Energy Industries Association. (n.d.). Concentrating solar power. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.seia.org/initiatives/concentrating-solar-power

3Union of Concerned Scientists. (2013, March 5). Environmental impacts of solar power. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-solar-power

4Utilipoint. (2012). What is a megawatt. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1209/ML120960701.pdf

5Colombia University. (n.d.). Order of magnitude. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/frontiers/web/chapter_2/8910.html

6Evans, C. D., Monteith, D. T., Fowler, D., Cape, J. N., & Brayshaw, S. (2011). Hydrochloric acid: An overlooked driver of environmental change. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(5), 1887-1894. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1021/es103574u

7Clark, C. (2019, February 19). Sulfuric acid. Gulf Coast Environmental Systems. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.gcesystems.com/sulfuric-acid/