If you are passionate about saving the planet, you are likely aware that solar is among the most eco-friendly energy sources. Not to mention one of the most renewable. However, you might still wonder:
Does solar energy really reduce your carbon footprint?
In short…yes, it does! Using solar energy for your home helps ease your dependence on the overworked electricity grid and decreases the amount of energy you consume from it. In fact, reducing your consumption of non-renewable energy is one of the top three ways you can shrink your carbon footprint.
This blog will answer all your burning questions about reducing your carbon footprint with solar energy.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What greenhouse gasses are and why they’re harmful
- How electricity generation contributes to emissions
- Figuring out the carbon footprint of solar panels
- How solar energy reduces our carbon footprint
The basics: solar energy and carbon footprints
To fully understand how solar energy reduces our carbon footprint, let’s start with the basics.
First, we have to keep in mind that everyone and everything has a carbon footprint as a byproduct of living. If you’re not mindful of your daily habits and behavior, your carbon footprint could be well above the average. This is especially true of your energy usage. 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. The problem is, they’re nonrenewable and dirty. Case in point: they release roughly 35 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon emissions into the atmosphere globally each year. One gigaton equals one billion tons. Think about that.
One billion tons of carbon emissions contribute to the larger effect of greenhouse gases that that cause long-lasting harm to our planet.
Solar energy, on the other hand, is a clean, green energy source that’s renewable and readily available for the world to harness. You can use a solar power system to harness this energy for your home. We’ll touch more on that further down.
What are greenhouse gases?
Examples of greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and various synthetic chemicals. Why are they harmful? Well, they trap heat in the atmosphere. A certain amount of heat is necessary to keep Earth above freezing. However, as more synthetic chemicals are burned, the excess heat has started to warm the planet past the point it should reach.
Human activities have sped up the release of these gases to worrisome levels. In fact, “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 (27%)
- Electricity (25%)
- Industry (24%)
- Commercial & residential (13%)
- Agriculture (11%)
How solar energy lowers our carbon emissions
Reducing your dependence on fossil fuels can drastically reduce your carbon footprint. The generation of solar energy doesn’t produce the harmful greenhouse gases that creating electricity does. Therefore, it’s naturally better for our carbon footprint.
Rooftop solar panels collect the sun’s abundant energy and a microinverter converts it into usable electricity for your home. If you add a solar battery backup to your array, you can store excess energy in the battery for future use.
If your utility provider participates in net metering, you could receive credit back on your monthly electricity bills for the solar power you don’t use.* How does this process work? Homeowners who don’t have a solar panel battery can push their excess solar energy to the grid. Some utility companies are willing to reimburse this contribution with credits.
Net metering is beneficial for the power grid, as well. By contributing solar energy, you help relieve the strain on the overworked grid.
Calculating a solar energy carbon footprint
While going solar might sound ideal if you’re concerned about the environment, there’s one caveat: Solar energy equipment has its own carbon footprint.
The process of generating solar energy doesn’t contribute to its carbon footprint. Manufacturing and transporting the equipment used to produce solar energy does. Since solar energy equipment doesn’t magically appear out of thin air, it’s going to have a carbon footprint. And for those looking to lower their carbon footprint, this fact might be a major consideration.
Curious about your own carbon footprint? This handy calculator from the Nature Conservancy can give you an estimate. 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.
For solar panels to pay off their “carbon debt”, or offset the amount of emissions produced during manufacturing and transport, you’ll need to use them 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
Understanding the real carbon footprint of solar panels
Solar 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.
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 point 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. As you can guess, the former solar panels create more emissions.
ADT Solar installs monocrystalline solar panels from several different manufacturers. In addition to having a smaller carbon footprint during the manufacturing process, monocrystalline panels perform well. Their efficiency ratings range from 17% to 22% — making them the most efficient solar panels.
The toll of transportation
In addition to the manufacturing process, transportation of raw materials and the panels takes a huge toll on its carbon footprint. Remember, transportation is right up there with energy consumption when it comes to heavy carbon emissions.
Paying off the debt
The last thing to consider when determining the carbon footprint of solar panels is their serviceable 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.
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. When you use solar energy at home, it’ll shrink your carbon footprint. This is especially true in the first three years after installing your system. And you’ll be able to generate carbon-free energy for decades to come.
Any human activity is going to have a carbon footprint. Making changes in many areas of your life is an important way to help reduce your carbon footprint. Going solar at home is one of the most effective methods.
Still have questions about solar’s impact on the environment? One of our Solar Energy Specialists would be happy to help.
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* Net metering and similar excess or buyback programs vary by location and utility provider and are subject to change. Rates may go up or down and the money you may save, if any, may vary. For more information about rates, contact your power company.