Why Is Solar Energy Bad? Solar Panels’ Environmental Impact (Toxic, Dangerous)

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

Solar Panels | April 1, 2024

Woman wonders why is solar energy bad and what is solar energy's environmental impact, asking are solar panels toxic, trying to understanding the disadvantages of solar energy as she holds up a solar panel.

The question, why is solar energy bad, may seem confusing. But with any technology, there are always downsides.

Although solar energy is touted as a green solution to fossil fuels, when it’s examined closer, and the full ecological impact of manufacturing, placing and disposing of solar panels is factored in, it leads to some very serious considerations.

When examining the pros and cons of solar energy, the positive advantages outweigh the problems that are currently inherent in this type of electricity generation, when it is done correctly.

Since there is not single solution to replacing current energy grids, solar panels (when installed in a residential setting) become an important key to reducing emissions.

However, there are other things, such as the environmental cost, that make large solar ‘grids’ harmful, leading many people to ask, why is solar energy bad?

This complete guide explains how solar energy isn’t the end-all-be-all miracle solution for replacing current grids, but also examines how it can play a role in ultimately replacing fossil fuel electricity.

Are Solar Panels Bad for the Environment?

When asked, “Are solar panels bad for the environment?” the most honest and correct answer is yes, they can be.

Ensuring that the environmental benefits of solar energy outweigh its upfront costs requires using a solar panel system properly for its full operational lifecycle.

Errors such as placing solar energy systems where there is little direct sunlight and discarding operational solar panels will lead to negative environmental effects.

But, there are additional reasons why producing and placing solar panels can be very detrimental to the planet.

Why Is Solar Energy Bad? Disadvantages of Solar Energy

Lack of access to direct sunlight is the most obvious problem among the disadvantages of solar energy. Though photovoltaic systems can absorb indirect sunlight, sunlight that is obscured by clouds, pollution, or heavy dust, indirect sunlight yields far less energy than direct sunlight.

Lack of direct sunlight is a greater problem for concentrated solar power, which depends heavily on focusing direct sunlight to generate energy.

Because of its need for direct sunlight, solar energy systems cannot efficiently be installed and operated globally.

Though solar energy is viable for homes in sunny locations such as California, which has recently faced consistent overproduction of solar energy, placing solar energy systems in Alaska or the North Pole would be a colossal waste of resources, energy, and time.

Ground-mounted Solar panels on stand situated in a snowy plain, with a windmill in the background.

(Image: Pixabay12)

Solar energy systems also have high upfront costs.

Due to the manufacturing costs and soft costs associated with creating, transporting, and installing solar energy system components, solar energy system operators may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars before receiving their first watt of solar power.

Photovoltaic systems do not collect any energy during nighttime. Solar thermal systems that rely on heat instead of sunlight can operate at night, but they rely on warm nights.

Solar batteries can store power during daylight and distribute their energy at night, but solar batteries increase the environmental and financial costs of a solar energy system. Solar energy systems require significant amounts of physical space.

Areas that have little land for development can’t install new solar energy systems without reclaiming and repurposing existing land. Also, buildings whose roofs and walls cannot fit or support solar panels are poor candidates for solar energy.

Damage to a solar panel dramatically reduces its energy efficiency and can even render it inoperable. Routine monitoring, maintenance, and cleaning can lower the possibility of some types of damage such as hot spots and biowaste-induced stains.

There is little that can be done for severe environmental hazards such as hail and intense winds. Solar panels contain toxic materials that require special handling when they are decommissioned or recycled.

Though the amount of toxic materials in a single solar panel is an insignificant burden, the prospect of dumping inoperable solar panels in landfills could lead to an environmental disaster when materials such as lead and cadmium are released into the water and the land.

The effectiveness of solar panels drops dramatically when their location has heavy air pollution. Polluted air reduces solar panels’ energy efficiency by 25%.1

Contaminants, which can be issued naturally (such as volcanic eruptions and other natural events) or by overpopulated cities, block light both as ambient particles and as pollutants deposited on solar panels, which are highly effective at preventing light absorption.

Why Is Solar Energy Bad? The Bad Effects of Solar Energy on the Ecosystem

Why is solar energy bad? Focused light generated from concentrated solar plants can kill and ignite flying animals such as birds and insects.2

The North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Resource News has additional information about potential and realized problems associated with renewable energy sources.10

Smaller-scale photovoltaic systems do not generate light intense enough to directly harm wildlife, but their potential impacts on the area’s flora and fauna are one of the bad effects of solar energy.

Land repurposed for solar energy systems means that the wildlife and vegetation that resided there can get destroyed.

Bird's eye-view of a land in the middle of a forest which is repurposed for solar farm.

(Image: Mark Merner13)

The Solar Energy Water Environment Nexus in Nevada has performed studies that indicate that industrial solar energy systems can increase temperatures and wind speeds during their operation.3,9

To ensure that solar power remains a viable part of the climate change solution will require acknowledging and mitigating industrial solar energy systems’ effects on their climates.

Prioritizing the discovery of locations with high quantities of direct sunlight can mitigate the negative impact to flora and fauna. High volumes of direct sunlight are often associated with deserts, which already have little vegetation and wildlife due to their hostile conditions.

Though environmental impact studies are still essential for such areas, displacement caused by solar energy farms is minimal when nature itself has already performed its own displacement.

Developing solar energy systems on land already affected by human intervention is another way to reduce solar energy systems’ environmental impact.

Land that has been contaminated frequently sits unused. Installing and maintaining a solar energy system on polluted land poses health and safety risks for the staff involved, but the environmental impact of the solar energy plant would be infinitesimal due to the pre-existing lack of wildlife and vegetation.

Solar energy systems installed on residential buildings have a minimal ecological impact. Solar panels installed on roofs and walls result in far less displacement of flora and fauna than industrial solar energy systems.

The most common type of displacement associated with residential solar energy systems is the removal of vegetation such as trees to increase a solar panel’s access to direct sunlight and to decrease the possibility of forming damaging hot spots on the solar panel.

When installing solar energy systems on land that has already been developed, you should look for buildings with sturdy roofs or large plots of non-porous land.

The Yale Environment Review provides information about renewable energy resources such as their environmental impacts and how to offset them.11

Carbon Footprint Solar Panels: Why Is Solar Energy Bad?

Calculating the actual carbon footprint solar panels requires tracking every aspect of the solar panel’s lifespan. Solar panels that are properly installed and operated for their full lifecycle will have a negative carbon footprint – reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Improper use and premature termination of a solar panel will result in a positive carbon footprint, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The costs and pollution associated with manufacturing, transporting, installing, and properly disposing of solar panels are the reasons why solar panels have a carbon footprint.

Manufacturing solar panels requires factories to process raw materials, including rare, dangerous and hard-to-collect materials, while using significant amounts of energy and water while releasing pollution.

The part of solar panels’ lifecycle from manufacturing to activation leads to a carbon footprint that is four times that of the emissions associated with nuclear power.

How Much Power Does a Solar Panel Produce?

To correctly answer “How much power does a solar panel produce?” requires gathering two pieces of data and multiplying them.

The output of solar panels varies by manufacturer, quality, and solar cell type, and the amount of direct sunlight a solar panel captures is essential.

Direct sunlight hitting rows of solar panel systems in a solar farm.

(Image: Tom Fisk14)

Because these two factors are almost always different from one solar energy system to another, there is no uniform answer. Gathering the necessary data may take some time, but it is not complex.

The output of a solar panel can be found in the manufacturer’s documentation.

Determining the number of hours of direct sunlight that the solar panel captures will require monitoring; fortunately, many modern solar energy farms provide monitoring tools such as smartphone apps and Bluetooth compatibility.

Multiplying the solar panel’s output in watts by the hours of direct sunlight that the solar panel absorbs results in the solar panel’s watt-hours per day generated. For example: a 300-watt solar panel that absorbs 5 hours of peak sun hours generates 1,500 watt-hours per day.

How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?

Answering “How much do solar panels cost?” requires an understanding of the factors that drive a solar panel’s cost.

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,4 the factors responsible for a solar panel’s price can be divided into hardware costs – the manufacturing of the solar panel – and soft costs – the costs of activities from the end of manufacturing to the end of the installation.

A solar panel’s cost factors are divided thusly:4

Pie chart graphics of solar panel costs, explained the different factors affecting prices of solar panels.

Cost Type Percentage of Solar Panel’s Cost
Hardware Costs 35%
Overhead (Administration, profit, etc.) 21%
Sales and Marketing 18%
Supply Chain Expenses 9%
Inspections and Permits 8%
Installation and Related Labor 7%
Sales Tax 2%

Because solar panel prices can vary significantly, due to factors including size, solar cell type, and manufacturer, expressing the cost of solar energy in terms of cost per watt of energy generated can be more useful than an arbitrary range that can change due to the manufacturer’s whims.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory,8 the cost per watt of a solar energy system as of 2020 was as follows:5

Type of Photovoltaic System Cost Per Watt Generated
Residential (22 panels) $2.71
Commercial Rooftop (200 kilowatts) $1.72
Utility-Scale With Fixed Tilt (Panels remain stationary) (100 Megawatts) $0.94
Utility-Scale With One-Axis Tracker (Panels are automatically adjusted to absorb more direct sunlight.) (100 Megawatts) $1.01

When discussing how much do solar panels cost from a historical standpoint, Swanson’s Law should be addressed.

Swanson’s Law, named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower Corporation, states that the price of solar photovoltaic modules drops approximately 20% every time the shipping volume of photovoltaic cells doubles.

There is a historical precedence to this observation; solar modules dropped in price by 99.6% since 1976.6

Swanson’s Law is pertinent because cheaper solar cells leads to cheaper solar panels and related technology.

There is no direct connection between reduced prices and reduced environmental impact, so less expensive solar panels should not be treated as a justification to prematurely dispose of a solar panel to purchase a newer model.

How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

The answer to “How long do solar panels last?” varies on how well the solar panels are maintained, the quality of the solar panels themselves, and where they operate.

A well-maintained and well-manufactured solar panel installed in a favorable climate can operate at peak efficiency for 25 to 30 years.

Solar energy system operators should avoid replacing functional solar panels with newer panels that offer higher energy efficiency, smaller sizes, or other compelling features.

Even though a 450-watt solar panel has the potential to yield more energy than a 250-watt solar panel, a prematurely discarded solar panel has a higher potential to have a negative environmental impact.

Why Is Solar Energy Storage Expensive?

Many of the reasons that determine the cost of a solar panel also affect the cost of a solar battery. Such factors include:

  • The manufacturer
  • The materials used to create the solar battery
  • The number of batteries that a solar energy system requires
  • Installation costs
  • Soft costs such as administration and profit

Price factors that are relatively unique to solar batteries include:

1. The solar battery’s storage capacity. Batteries that can store larger amounts of energy cost more.

2. The type of current that the solar battery uses. Direct current batteries are cheaper than alternate current batteries.

However, direct current batteries may not be compatible with many solar energy systems.

3. The additional equipment associated with solar batteries:

  • Backup Gateways: Devices that stop the flow of electricity from the solar energy system to the electrical grid during a power outage.
  • Critical Loads Panels: Devices that connect to backup gateways and send power only to user-specified appliances and areas.

4. Rising cobalt prices. Cobalt is a core component of modern-day solar batteries, and its increased price leads to higher solar energy costs.

As of the end of 2021, a single solar battery can cost from $12,000 to $22,000.7

Solar Farm Income Per Acre

The amount of solar farm income per acre is influenced by multiple factors such as access to direct sunlight and the solar farm’s distance to the electric grid.

A solar farm with optimal location and skilled maintenance can yield between $1,770 and $3,540 per month for every energy-generating acre.

Why Is Solar Energy Unreliable?

The answer to “Why is solar energy unreliable?” is that solar energy relies primarily on access to direct sunlight as well as moderate temperature ranges. This makes solar energy a bad choice for areas with consistent cloud covers, extreme temperature ranges, and long nights.

Photovoltaic systems can capture indirect sunlight, but the energy efficiency from indirect sunlight is far lower than the energy efficiency of direct sunlight.

A few overcast days or an occasional dust storm is of little consequence, but long periods of obscured skies can render a photovoltaic system virtually useless.

Long shot of a solar farm with the sky and sun covered in heavy gray clouds.

(Image: Andreas-Troll15)

Personal actions such as eating less meat or turning off lights not being actively used are simple actions with no significant drawbacks, but societal changes such as planting trees, purchasing carbon offsets, and switching to renewable energy sources are more complex and carry more consequences, both beneficial and dangerous.

Addressing the climate change crisis and lowering the global carbon footprint requires thorough and honest discussions about complicated matters.

Solar energy systems need intelligent placement, routine maintenance, and proper disposal to both offset their environmental and financial costs.

Once the solar energy system reaches its breakeven points, the remainder of its operational lifecycle reduces the global carbon footprint and provides financial benefits to its operators and to the community.

Understand why some people ask, why is solar energy bad, is simply a matter of recognizing all the factors involved with this type of energy system.


1Kingery, K. (2017, June 26). Air Pollution Casts Shadow over Solar Energy Production. Duke – Pratt School of Engineering. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://pratt.duke.edu/about/news/solar-pollution>

2Moore, A. (2019, November 13). Renewable Energy Poses Challenge for Wildlife Conservation. NC State – College of Natural Resources News. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2019/11/renewable-energy-poses-challenge-for-wildlife-conservation/>

3Palmer, J. (2017, January 3). Sleuthing Solar’s Side Effects. Solar Energy Water Environment Nexus in Nevada. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://solarnexus.epscorspo.nevada.edu/sleuthing-solars-side-effects/?doing_wp_cron=1678829758.9464480876922607421875>

4Solar Energy Technologies Office. (2023). Solar Soft Cost Basics. Office of Energy and Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-soft-costs-basics>

5National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). Solar Installed System Cost Analysis. NREL Transforming Energy. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/solar/market-research-analysis/solar-installed-system-cost.html>

6Wikipedia. (2022, September 28). Swanson’s Law. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swanson%27s_law>

7Solar Energy Technologies Office. (2021, November 22). Should I Get Battery Storage for My Solar Energy System? Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/articles/should-i-get-battery-storage-my-solar-energy-system>

8National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). National Renewable Energy Laboratory Homepage. NREL Transforming Energy. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from <https://www.nrel.gov/index.html>

9Nexus in Nevada. (2023). Solar Energy Water Environment Nexus in Nevada Homepage. Solar Nexus. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from <https://solarnexus.epscorspo.nevada.edu/?doing_wp_cron=1678999895.0421609878540039062500>

10North Carolina State University. (2023). College of Natural Resources News. NC State University. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from <https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/>

11Yale School of Environment. (2023). Climate Change & Energy. Yale Environment Review. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from <https://environment-review.yale.edu/tags/climate-change-energy>

12Pixabay. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/alternative-alternative-energy-clouds-eco-energy-433308/>

13Mark Merner. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/ZK69PVQj5nc>

14Tom Fisk. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/solar-farm-at-sunny-day-9893729/>

15Andreas-Troll. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/images/id-191689/>