Renewable energy is largely used to lower the overall carbon footprint. While many like to claim that power generation sources such as solar energy is carbon free, it is important to look at the full picture before making such claims. Solar is undoubtedly a power generation source with one of the lowest carbon footprints but it is worth investigating further about the true carbon footprint. So, what questions must be answered surrounding solar and the carbon emissions it takes to make an array operational?

  • Does Solar Use Any Fuel?
  • How Do You Measure The Carbon Footprint Of Solar?
  • Is All Solar Created Equal?
  • Are There Any Carbon Emissions Once An Array Is Built?

Does Solar Use Any Fuel?

Every energy source requires some type of fuel. For traditional power plants, this is usually a fossil fuel such as coal or natural gas. These fossil fuels are typically burned which heats up water and turns it into what is known as high quality steam. This high quality steam is then used to turn a turbine. The emissions from burning these fossil fuels are what gives this type of energy generation such a large carbon footprint. Renewable energy is characterized by having fuel that has no greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, sunlight can be thought of as the carbon free “fuel” which generates electricity from an array. Solar allows for all of the benefits of a power generation source without all of the negative impacts of a large carbon footprint.

How Do You Measure The Carbon Footprint Of Solar?

The excavation of the raw materials to make solar panels and the construction of the array does have an associated carbon footprint. The best way to account for these carbon emissions is to express it as a value per kilowatt hour that a solar array is capable of generating over its lifetime. It is estimated that a solar array puts out up to 20 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour generated. This is far lower than a natural gas fired power plant which is estimated to give off up to 596 grams of carbon dioxide per kWh generated. This represents almost 30 times the emissions for the same energy generated.

Is All Solar Created Equal?

There are many different types of solar panels. This means that the underlying materials used to create them are slightly different. For example, solar panels can be made of materials such as silicon, cadmium telluride and even different copper compounds. Each of these materials has a very different mining process which has varying levels of fossil fuel utilization to both extract from the earth and then later refine into a usable product. If you are doing a true analysis of the total carbon footprint of a solar array, it must be done from the very inception of the raw materials that go into the finished product.

Are There Any Carbon Emissions Once An Array Is Built?

Most people think that once a solar array is completed, it simply generates renewable energy for the rest of its useful life. While this is largely true, there are a few issues that can occur over time. The most common issue for a solar array is a malfunctioning inverter which is the device that converts electricity from direct current to alternating current. When an inverter malfunctions, that portion of the array is unable to produce electricity. This means that a service technician will have to make a trip out to the site to fix it. This site visit requires fossil fuels to transport the technician. While solar is largely hands off, there are still some site visits over time which increases the total carbon footprint.

While solar power generation may still involve some greenhouse gas emissions, it is still far better for the environment than using more traditional fossil fuels. In theory, as more renewable energy comes into operation, renewable energy can be used to produce new renewable products which means they can truly be considered carbon free.