Carbon Footprint: Solar Panel Manufacturing In 1 Simple Explanation

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

Solar Panels | March 28, 2024

Carbon footprint, solar manufacturing demonstrated by a woman looking at a scale with the carbon footprint of solar manufacturing weighed on the balance.

Like any other product, manufacturing impacts the carbon footprint: solar panels are no different.

The carbon footprint of solar panel manufacturing is often overlooked in favor of the benefits of generating emissions-free electricity (something the world needs). But the panels themselves are not carbon neutral.

There is a carbon footprint solar panels produce, which adds to how much do solar panels cost. Understanding this one simple explanation can help you make sure that your energy reduction strategy is completely eco-friendly.

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Carbon Footprint of Solar Panel Manufacturing Explained

You might have expected solar panels to be a carbon neutral source of energy. And there’s good reason to believe that.

Renewable energy sources are often touted as being carbon free, or as close to it as is currently possible. And while that can be true during their operation, it’s not true for their production.

All manufacturing generates a carbon footprint.

This is why many businesses are seeking ways to lower their impact by calculating the carbon footprint of a business.

Even renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, generate a carbon footprint when they are manufactured. These environmental consequences need to be rectified in order for those power generators to be considered completely carbon neutral, which is why solar panel carbon offsets should be factored into the equation.

How Is the Carbon Footprint Solar Panels Produce Measured?

It is important that any ‘green’ power source be coupled with the emissions that are produced by its production, waste and operation. This helps provide a holistic view of the benefits that can be achieved by solar panel installation.

As it stands, the carbon footprint of solar panel manufacturing is decided by these factors:

Type of Solar Panel Being Manufactured

The carbon footprint of a panel is mostly dependent on how the solar cells are produced. They’re usually silicon-based which has its own problems. One of the major byproducts of making solar panels is silicon tetra-chloride which becomes a particularly harmful substance known as hydrogen chloride when exposed to humid air. This is both damaging to the environment and potentially deadly to humans.

Source and Amount of Power Being Used at the Factory:

This is the other major contributing factor to the carbon footprint of a solar panel. If the factory is powered by oil or gas, then the panels will have a much higher carbon footprint.

Wide angle of a factory producing air pollution.

(Image: KarinKarin9)

The opposite is also true. If the factory mostly or only uses renewable energy sources, then the panel will have a much lower carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint of Mining Metals and Rare Earth Minerals for Solar Panels:

Like other complicated technologies, solar panels require trace amounts of rare earth metals to function. However, mining these metals poses it own set of environmental problems, and with it, a higher carbon footprint. In many areas of the globe, mining these metals is poorly regulated or simply unethical given the amount of land that is destroyed in the process. Additionally, the processing plants often produce toxic runoff that then further scars the land, sometimes making it uninhabitable all forms of life. So, to properly understand both the carbon and ecological footprint of a solar panel, you need to know where these resources are sourced from.

Recycling Used or Dead Panels:

This is a major concern for the solar energy industry because breaking down solar panels into reusable components can be very dangerous given the various toxins used in their creation. However, the industry is already looking for ways to diminish the carbon emissions generated at the end of a panels lifecycle.

Transporting Solar Panels From Factory:

This is less harmful than the other previously mentioned factors, but shipping goods always has a substantial carbon footprint. It’s particularly bad if you are shipping goods by plane, but trucks and cars also add up over time.

High angle shot of a cargo ship loading containers from the port.

(Image: Tom Fisk8)

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know the exact carbon emissions produced when shipping a product, but this does factor into the overall cost.

Carbon Offsets Purchased by the Renewable Energy Company:

In some cases, companies will purchase carbon offsets to reduce their own emissions. By buying offsets, they are also reducing the CO2e produced during the entire lifecycle of a panel. It is better, however, if the company chooses instead to procure their energy from renewable sources because that will vastly diminish the carbon footprint of both their company and their panels while also minimizing damage to the environment.1

All of these factors are being discussed right now, but it’s going to take some time until large scale change is made to combat these problems.

Until then, however, you can rest assured that, compared to fossil fuels, solar panels have a very low carbon footprint, and the same is true for solar panel generators.

But that carbon footprint is highly dependent on what sort of panels you choose to install.

Types of Solar Panels

Right now, there are two major types of solar panels being manufactured. They account for about 97% of all solar panels currently being sold in the U.S.

  • Monocrystalline: Each cell on a given panel is made from a single silicon crystal. These panels offer high efficiency for a higher price.
  • Polycrystalline: Each cell on a given panel is made up of multiple silicon crystals. These panels are less efficient but more affordable.

Both solar panel types have their own ‘hidden’ carbon footprints associated with the manufacturing and shipping processes. These are referred to as hidden costs because they are often overlooked.

Solar panels installed on a roof.

(Image: Caniceus10)

These solar panels have different carbon footprints because of how they are made. Shipping is almost always going to have its own carbon footprint, so it’s more useful to consider how a panel is made rather than how it is transferred from one location to another.

  • Monocrystalline Solar Panels: To produce these panels, engineers begin by molding a large silicon block. They slice off tiny chunks of silicon that are then affixed to a solar panel frame.
  • Polycrystalline Solar Panels: To produce these panels, engineers melt together silicon crystals. This process requires large amounts of energy which is often generated by the burning of fossil fuel sources and not other renewable sources.

Furthermore, both types of panels require the mining of rare earth minerals and metals, both of which have their own carbon footprints.

In general, polycrystalline solar panels tend to have a higher carbon footprint than monocrystalline solar panels purely due to the energy consumption of melting down silicon.

But that’s not always the case. It also depends on where the solar panels are produced. If they are created in a factory that runs on renewables, then the carbon footprint of each panel will be significantly lower, regardless of how they are made.

The opposite is also true. If a solar panel is made in a factory that only or mostly uses fossil fuels (such as in Asia and other locations around the world), then that panel will have a significantly higher carbon footprint.

In general, however, you can expect monocrystalline solar panels to have a lower carbon footprint.2

But what are the actual statistics?

Calculating the Carbon Footprint of a Solar Panel

It is very hard to calculate the actual manufacturing carbon footprint of solar panels because the necessary information to perform that calculation is just not available to the public, and that’s because every country has its own laws on how much information needs to be disclosed about the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) being produced by a company.

Environmentalists know that monocrystalline solar panels tend to have a lower carbon footprint, but there are just too many factors to the manufacturing process to actually calculate the carbon footprint. You would need to ask:

  • How much energy does a solar panel factory use to make a single solar panel?
  • What sort of energy source does this business use for their factories? Do they use renewables, fossil fuels, or a mix?
  • Where do they source their raw materials and rare earth metals from? What is the carbon footprint associated with mining the requisite materials for a single solar panel?
  • Does the business offset their carbon emissions?

The answers to these questions are not often disclosed to the public, so you have to be willing to make some assumptions about the overall carbon footprint of any type of solar panel.

However, various studies have shown how long it will take for an average solar panel system to pay back its manufacturing costs.3

What’s the Energy Payback for Solar Panels?

In their first few years of use, solar panels will generate about 50 grams of CO2e per kilowatt hour (kwh).

Because of this, it will take the average solar panel system on a residential building about three years to pay off its carbon debt and become carbon neutral.

This is assuming that the system is well maintained and operates for at least 20 years which most should do.

However, high quality, high efficiency solar panels haven’t been around long enough to wear out. So, 20 years is just an assumption. They could last for even longer given the right level of care and maintenance.

Additionally, the CO2e emissions from solar panels are about 20 times less than the CO2e emissions of a coal-powered generator producing the same amount of electricity. So, even though solar panels do have a carbon footprint, their emissions simply do not compare to fossil fuel equivalents.

And, unlike fossil fuel use, your solar panels really do pay off their carbon footprint while also saving you money.

How Much Energy Does It Take to Make Solar Panels?

There’s just not enough information to properly calculate exactly how much energy it takes to make solar panels. And, as you know, there are just too many things that factor into the overall energy consumption needed to produce panels to produce a good estimate.

But researchers who have studied the environmental cost of solar energy for the last decade, do agree that, on average, a solar panel system will essentially pay back its carbon footprint in two to three years depending on those aforementioned factors.

An engineer wearing a white shirt and white safety helmet, inspecting solar panel brackets.

(Image: Gustavo Fring11)

It could even be less if you buy from a company that is very eco-conscious and you are located in a good location for making the most of a solar panel system.4

Regardless of the type of solar panel, their manufacturing produces toxic byproducts.

Silicon Tetra-chloride: Solar Panel Manufacturing Footprint

During the manufacturing process, various toxic chemicals are used, and one of these byproducts is silicon tetrachloride.

Silicon tetrachloride is incredibly dangerous to humans, particularly when it reacts with humid air. It becomes hydrogen chloride, which, when breathed, can cause long term health problems.

This is a particular problem for China, the single largest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. Records suggest that many of the factories in China have been dumping silicon tetrachloride runoff near villages. This substance then pollutes the air, land, and groundwater – all of which are incredibly important to sustaining life.

However, this issue is by no means limited to China. Other nations, including the U.S. have had similar problems disposing of silicon tetrachloride.5

This health concern has had serious consequences for the solar energy industry. Not only are the chemicals actively harming people, but they’re also harming the reputation of the energy source.

It’s made it much easier for bad faith critics to argue that solar energy is no better than oil and gas, despite there being plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Of course, the issue is a byproduct of these panels being produced in areas with lax or unenforced regulations for disposing of toxic waste products, but to those bent on harming the reputation of solar energy, it’s an easy target of critique and one that needs to be addressed for the long term success of renewable energy.3

Solar Panel Recycling Problems

The other major environmental problem with solar panels comes at the end of their lifecycle when they need to be disposed of.

Now, the renewable energy industry has proposed recycling faulty or broken panels. But these panels are made out of various toxic substances including tellurium, cadmium, indium, selenium, gallium, lead, and copper.

It’s not easy or cheap to recover these metals, and they’re particularly hazardous to human health.

Close up of a technician fixing a solar panel.

(Image: JoseMalagonArenas12)

So, as panels begin to degrade, a new corner of the renewable energy industry is attempting to understand how these panels can either be recycled by carefully deconstructing panels and repurposing their contents or restored for sale on a used panels market.

But there’s a cost to this as well, and that comes from shipping panels to recycling plants which, given their relative newness, are few and far between. Just moving solar panels from one place to another can drastically increase their carbon footprint, but at this stage, it’s the only real solution.

However, as the recycling industry reckons with this dilemma, they will likely find new and more environmentally friendly methods to get rid of panels.

So, if you’re considering purchasing solar panels today, know that while there’s yet to be a good method for recycling them, you’ve got about 20 to 30 years before you need to contend with that problem, in which time the solar panels will not only pay off their manufacturing emissions, but also their transportation costs.5

Can Solar Panels Really Work as a Green Power Generator?

Yes. Solar panels really do work as a source of renewable, sustainable energy.

That doesn’t negate the current problems with solar energy, but when the solar industry is compared to oil and gas industries, there’s a clear winner when it comes to generating green power.

In fact, it’s not even a contest. Even at the current rate of pollution produced by the solar industry, it will take decades – maybe centuries to even be comparable to the harm that has been done by the fossil fuel industry.

That doesn’t mean you should let the solar industry off the hook. They can do better, and, in many cases, they are already trying to do better by inviting new, more sustainable ways to generate electricity from solar energy, as well as how to reduce the emissions and other toxic wastes created by their factories.

This is exemplified by a new type of panel that has just recently been demonstrated to the public.5

Are There Alternatives to Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline Solar Panels?

To address the CO2e emissions produced by the solar energy industry, a group of scientists and engineers have developed a third kind of solar panel, perovskite cells.

These cells would be created from inorganic perovskite instead of silicon. While perovskite has its own disadvantages, it has been proven to be both cheaper and more efficient than silicon-based panels.6

The main reason that perovskite cells haven’t been implemented yet is because of their much shorter lifespan. They degrade a lot quicker than silicon-based cells. But just this year, the developers behind this new kind of cell, discovered a way to improve their lifespan.

It may still be a couple of years until you see perovskite solar panel systems on the market, but they are already proving to be far more efficient while also producing less CO2e emissions.

If these are the future for solar panels, there’s a chance the carbon footprint of the industry itself will decrease which, in turn, will lower the carbon footprint of your solar panel systems and make them even more viable as a source of green energy.7

How Can I Find Solar Panels for My Home?

There are many ways to find solar panels for your home. The best way to begin is by using one of the many mapping services designed to analyze your roof’s solar potential.

Solar panels installed on a red roof.

(Image: Admiral_Lebioda13)

These sorts of apps will give you a better idea of just how much stand to benefit from installing a solar panel system, as well as providing you with quotes for purchasing and installing solar panels.

But your search doesn’t have to stop there.

By doing a quick Google search you can learn about all your local companies that specialize in installing solar panel systems; they’ll be able to give you a more accurate quote as well as introduce you to a solar co-op if one exists in your area, and, if your house is not suited to solar panels, they might be able to put you in touch with a solar communities.

  • Solar Co-ops: These are groups of individuals and businesses that band together to purchase solar technology in bulk to lower the upfront installation costs.
  • Solar Communities: These are communities that work together to purchase or rent from a single solar panel system. This is particularly good for people who are renting spaces or do not have roofs that would support solar panel installation. There are many of these groups, and there’s a good chance that there’s at least one in your area.

There are many other ways to source solar energy for your home, but it is important that you speak to an expert before going ahead with an installation process.

Solar panels do help reduce your overall carbon footprint. And the good news is that you can still make them completely carbon neutral by using tree planting carbon offset programs offered by reputable carbon offsetting companies.

By restoring the natural carbon sinks the planet needs, you’ll be able to doubly benefit the environment… just don’t forget to measure your eco footprint first.

Solar energy has a carbon footprint; solar panels cannot currently be made without producing CO2e emissions, but that shouldn’t prevent you from switching to solar as long as you offset the carbon footprint of solar panel manufacturing.


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