Does Solar Energy Really Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

solar carbon footprint

You may have heard about the numerous benefits of solar energy for the environment, your home and your budget. And for those who are interested in saving the planet, you may know that it’s a great way to keep our environment healthy. However, you may have a lingering question of:

Does solar energy actually reduce your carbon footprint? 

The short answer is that yes it does! Using solar energy for your home helps reduce your reliance on the overworked electricity grid and therefore the amount of energy you consume from it. In fact, reducing your energy consumption is one of the top three ways you can lower your carbon footprint.

For those of you wanting to know more, we went ahead and wrote this blog to answer all your burning questions about reducing your carbon footprint with solar energy.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

The basics: solar energy and carbon footprints

To fully understand how solar energy reduces our carbon footprint, let’s start with the basics.

First off, we have to keep in mind that everyone and everything has a carbon footprint as a byproduct of living. This means, if you’re not careful with your daily habits, your carbon footprint could be well above the average. Especially in regards to your energy use. According to the World Resources Institute:

“Energy consumption is by far the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for a whopping 76% (37.2 GtCO2e) worldwide.”

Fossil fuels currently power most of the world, and needless to say, they’re nonrenewable and dirty. Case in point: the roughly 35 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon emissions they release into the atmosphere globally each year. In case you’re wondering, one gigaton equals one billion tons.

This one billion tons of carbon emissions is part of the larger effect of greenhouse gases that are causing such detrimental harm to our planet.

Solar energy, on the other hand, is a clean, green energy source that’s endless and readily available for the world to harness. Of course you’ll need solar energy energy equipment to harness that energy for your home, and this will contribute to your carbon footprint. More on that later.

What are greenhouse gases?

For those of you wondering, greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various synthetic chemicals, trap heat in the atmosphere. Some of these gases occur naturally, like carbon emissions. However, human activities have sped up their release to worrisome levels. According to “multiple lines of evidence” it has been confirmed that “human activities are the primary cause of the global warming of the past 50 years”. A huge part of this equation is the burning of fossil fuels to create electricity.

Greenhouse gases and electricity generation

As we just mentioned, many forms of human activities produce greenhouse gases. However, one of the largest factors is electricity generation. The EPA breaks down the sectors by the largest offenders to greenhouse gas emissions like this:

  • Transportation (28%)
  • Electricity (28%)
  • Industry (22%)
  • Commercial & residential (11%)
  • Agriculture (9%)

carbon emissions breakdown

How solar energy lowers our carbon emissions

From this information, you could see how reducing our reliance on the burning of fossil fuel energy could drastically impact our carbon footprint. Solar energy doesn’t produce the harmful carbon emissions that fossil fuel energy does. Therefore, it’s just naturally better for our carbon footprint.

Instead of burning off fossil fuels for energy, solar panels are installed on your roof. These panels collect the sun’s abundant energy and convert it into usable electricity for your home. Whatever energy you don’t use right away can be stored in a solar battery backup or can be pushed back to the grid. If your state participates in net metering, then you could also receive credit back on your monthly electricity bills for that solar energy. Pushing your excess solar energy to the grid also helps by adding in usable electricity for the collective.This also relieves the strain of the overworked grid.

Reducing carbon emissions in the air can also help reduce water pollution. And speaking of water pollution, solar panels don’t need water to operate which helps with water conservation as well.

Calculating a Solar Energy Carbon Footprint

solar energy reduce carbon footprintWhile this all sounds like a match made in heaven for those of you concerned about the environment, let’s get back to the part about how solar energy equipment has its own carbon footprint.

Solar energy itself doesn’t contribute to the carbon footprint. However,  the equipment used to harness solar energy does. Needless to say, solar energy equipment doesn’t come out of thin air, so of course there’s going to be a carbon footprint. And for those looking to lower their carbon footprint, that may be a major consideration.

And by the way, in case you’re interested in knowing what your individual carbon footprint might look like, the folks over at the Nature Conservancy have put together this pretty nifty calculator. Try it out.

We’ll walk you through what calculating the carbon footprint of solar panels looks like, but let’s get straight to the point.

In order for solar panels to pay off their “carbon debt”, or offset the amount of emissions produced during manufacturing, you’ll need to keep them working for around one to three years. Considering the life of a typical solar panel is between 20 and 25 years, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Now let’s take a look at the factors involved in the carbon footprint of solar panels:

  • Mining of resources
  • Manufacturing process
  • Transportation
  • Lifespan

Understanding the Real Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels

The real carbon footprint of solar panels includes mining of earth’s resources, the production process of the panels, and transportation of raw materials and completed panels, usually over great distances.

how long solar panels lastSolar panels consist of silicon solar cells and this requires raw materials. The mining process and the continued demand for earth’s valuable resources is a large contributor to the carbon footprint of solar panels. In addition to silicon, solar panels use some rare earth and precious metals like silver, copper, indium, tellurium. Solar batteries also use lithium. During the mining process, greenhouse gas emissions can contaminate the air, soil, and water. Groups like the Coalition on Materials Research Transparency are taking this issue head on by creating industry-wide standards. These standards would help to evaluate the carbon emissions that are a byproduct from mining these resources.

Another thing to consider is the type of solar panel makes a difference on its carbon footprint. For example, monocrystalline versus polycrystalline panels will have very different carbon footprints due to the manufacturing process. Polycrystalline solar cells require a lot more energy to produce than monocrystalline solar cells and thus create more emissions. Most standard solar panels currently use silicon. While silicon has a fairly hefty manufacturing process, emerging solar technology like using perovskite could help reduce this.

In addition to the manufacturing process, transportation of raw materials and the panels themselves takes a huge toll on its carbon footprint. Remember, transportation is right up there with energy consumption when it comes to heavy carbon emissions. So this highly depends on where the manufacturer is located and where they’re shipping the final product to. For example, research done shows that solar panels may have a much higher (about double!) carbon footprint if they’re manufactured in China and installed in Europe.

The last thing to consider when determining the carbon footprint of a solar panel is the lifespan. As we mentioned before, it takes around one to three years to pay off the typical “carbon debt” a solar panel will acquire during the manufacturing and shipping process. However this depends highly on the type of solar panel and where it was manufactured. This is something to keep in mind if you’re concerned about the carbon footprint of your solar system.

How does solar energy reduce our carbon footprint?

Considering all the aspects of what goes into the carbon footprint of solar panels, you may still be wondering if solar energy is worth it. Does it really make a difference?

The real answer is yes.

The carbon footprint of a solar panel is roughly 20 times less than the carbon output of coal-powered electricity sources. As a result of using solar energy in your home, your carbon footprint will decrease. This is especially true after the first 3 years of installing your system, and you’ll be able to generate carbon-free electricity for decades to come.

Any human activity is going to have a carbon footprint. This is an important reason why we should always be striving to offset our carbon footprint with activities that will give back to the planet. Making changes in many areas of your life is an important way to help reduce your carbon footprint, including the amount you drive and travel, being mindful about your energy consumption and maintaining a sustainable mindset. One of the important ways you can start is by using clean solar energy for your home. When you’re ready for your solar consultation, here’s what you can expect.

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