How Residential Solar Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Residential solar has really boomed across the UK in recent years and according to the EcoExperts, there have been 1.5 million solar panel installations in the UK, noting that Cornwall is the county that has had the most residential solar panel installations.

Solar panels and the use of renewable energy is an obvious solution to reducing carbon emissions, helping homeowners and renters reduce their individual carbon footprint. 


The Solar Solution


Renewable Energy at Your Doorstep: Installing solar panels is akin to placing a small power plant on your roof. These photovoltaic (PV) systems capture sunlight and convert it into electricity, offering a dependable and sustainable energy source for your home. Unlike fossil fuels, which are finite and produce greenhouse gas emissions, solar energy is limitless and emits minimal to no harmful pollutants.


Carbon Emission Reduction


The impact of residential solar panels on carbon emissions is significant. According to the Energy Saving Trust, a typical UK home with a solar PV system can cut carbon emissions by 1.3 to 1.6 tonnes annually, depending on its location.

To put this into perspective, 1.3 tonnes of carbon emissions are equivalent to the CO2 produced by using 536 gallons of petrol or charging 607,904 smartphones. Over 30 years, a standard solar PV system in the UK prevents about 39 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – comparable to planting 2,365 tree seedlings and nurturing them for a decade.


Sunshine Even on Cloudy Day


In the UK, where sunny days are rather rare, solar panels have the ability to remain effective. Even while enduring cloudy conditions, solar cells continue to generate electricity, albeit at a reduced rate.

April 2020 saw record-breaking solar production, demonstrating that solar panels can perform well even when the sun is not fully visible. A 3 kW or 4 kW solar panel system can power a household of four to five people, supporting extensive use of household appliances. Additionally, surplus energy can be sold back to the grid, fostering a circular energy economy.


What is the Environmental Impact of Manufacturing Solar Panels?


The environmental impact of manufacturing solar panels involves both material extraction and production processes.


Material Extraction


Solar panels are made from silicon, glass, and metals like silver, copper, indium, and tellurium. While silicon and glass are abundant and non-toxic, mining these metals generates greenhouse gas emissions and can cause soil, water, and air pollution.

Manufacturing Processes


There are three different types of solar panels which all have different manufacturing processes and environmental impacts. Although manufacturing solar panels has environmental impacts, their long-term benefits in reducing carbon emissions make them a worthwhile investment, however, here we outline the negative environmental impacts within the manufacturing processes. 


Monocrystalline Panels


Monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient out of the three options, with an energy conversion rate of 19-22%. They are made from pure, single-cell silicon crystals. The production process for monocrystalline panels is rather energy-intensive, as a large piece of silicon is moulded into a block and then sliced into wafers. This complex process requires significant energy, resulting in higher carbon emissions compared to other types of solar panels.


Polycrystalline Panels


Polycrystalline panels are made from silicon crystals that are melted together and then placed onto the panel. They are less efficient than monocrystalline panels but still provide a reliable source of renewable energy.

The production of polycrystalline panels requires less energy than monocrystalline panels, resulting in a lower carbon footprint. However, their lower efficiency means that more panels might be needed to produce the same amount of energy, which could offset some of the benefits gained from the less energy-intensive manufacturing process.


Thin-Film Panels


Thin-film panels are made from various materials, such as amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, or copper indium gallium selenide. These panels are typically less efficient than both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Thin-film panels have a smaller carbon footprint during production due to their simpler manufacturing process.

However, the materials used can be extremely toxic. If not handled properly, these materials can pose significant environmental and health risks. Proper disposal and recycling of thin-film panels are crucial to mitigating these risks.


The Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels


Like any manufactured product, solar panels have an initial carbon footprint. However, significant advancements in the industry have reduced this impact. Engineers are continually improving materials and manufacturing processes to enhance efficiency. The average power output of a standard 72-cell multi-silicon solar module has increased since 2010, now reaching around 290 watts. As technology progresses, solar panels become more environmentally friendly, making their initial carbon footprint a worthwhile trade-off for long-term environmental benefits.