At the individual installation level, it's rather obvious that commercial solar energy systems have positive impact on the environment—instead of using electricity generated by fossil fuels, your business utilizes clean, renewable energy from a limitless resource (the sun).
But a recent article in The Atlantic takes a step back and evaluates solar as a whole, presenting some intriguing research to address this pressing questions: On the whole, does the effort and energy used to manufacture, distribute, and install solar panels across the globe truly have a net positive effect on the environment? The short answer is yes, but the evidence varies widely—and so do the conclusions drawn from existing data.
The article reports on a study by the University of Groningen and the University of Utrecht, a well-balanced body of research that presents the best- and worst-case evaluations of the overall environmental impact of solar technology.
This research—including data spanning 40 years, multiple countries, and various industries—concludes that two possibilities exist:
- Worst-case scenario: Solar power will soon have a carbon-neutral environmental impact.
The study projected that solar power will reach carbon neutrality (energy used in production matches overall energy savings) on net energy in 2017, and on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions the following year (2018).
- Best-case scenario: Solar power already “broke even”—20 years ago.
On the opposite side of the study’s projected data range exists the possibility that solar power has actually been carbon negative—or actually reducing our carbon footprint—for about 20 years.
Why are these scenarios so vastly different? The article explains that data ambiguity within this kind of analysis can lead to a wide range of highly-possible outcomes. Some of the uncertainties identified include the age of the environmental-impact data, the manufacturing location of solar panels (e.g. environmental consequences can vary depending on whether panels are produced in China or in Europe), and the amount of energy produced per panel.