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Solar Panels: Environmental Impacts

Written by Dr. Tomotaroh Granzier-Nakajima
Published on March 27, 2023
Research Highlights

If the U.S. moves to carbon-free energy production by 2050, solar panels could require up to 0.5% of the land area of the lower 48 states.

Shifts to solar could reduce water usage by 88% in 2050 and may slightly increase hazardous elements in nearby soil and water.

Improvements to air quality from increased solar usage could save $300 —$400 billion by 2050.

Solar panels could require 0.5% of the land area of the lower 48 states by 2050.

Non-residential land use

Most U.S. non-residential solar systems are on land that receives little rain, including some forests, grasslands, shrubland, and barren areas (Kruitwagen 2021). Deployments on cropland also occur frequently.

  • In the Midwest, 70% of commercial solar systems are on what was previously commercial agricultural land (Walston 2021).
  • Solar panels in southwest states typically have better access to the sun and can generate more electricity (EIA 2019).
  • Read our Community Science Note on agrivoltaics to learn about how solar panel systems are integrated with agriculture.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that ground-based solar will require up to 0.5% of the total land area of the lower 48 states if the U.S. reaches zero carbon emissions from the electric grid by 2050 and significantly increases electricity use for transportation and buildings (Figure 1; Heath 2022).

  • Disturbed land suitable for solar includes previously developed areas and non-vegetative lands such as quarries and gravel pits. If solar panels are restricted to these areas, they will require 6.4% of this land.

MO is predicted to need 0.4% of its total land area for solar energy.

  • Land use estimates rely on uncertainties that can affect actual use, including solar technology improvements in efficiency, energy storage, and non-land based use (e.g., floating panels).

Figure 1. Solar energy land needs if electricity is decarbonized by 2050 (Heath 2022).

Home value

U.S. home prices within 1 mile of a large-scale solar project are up to 1.5% lower than homes 2—4 miles away from the same project (Elmallah 2023).

  • Price disparities are largest in rural areas, near solar projects on former agricultural land, and near large solar projects.

Agricultural land value

There is limited research on how solar projects impact agricultural land value.

previously developed areas and non-vegetative lands such as quarries and gravel pits. If solar panels are restricted to these areas, they will require 6.4% of this land.

    • In NC, one of the only states that has been investigated, agricultural land value is not directly affected by nearby large-scale solar farms (Abashidze 2022). Agricultural land close to electric transmission lines had higher value when near a solar farm. 

 

Increased solar production can reduce water usage and may slightly increase hazardous metals in nearby soil and water.

Water usage

Water is used in thermoelectric power plants (e.g., coal, oil, gas, nuclear) to create steam that drives electricity generating turbines and to cool equipment (USGS 2018).

  • In 2015, the power sector accounted for 41% of U.S. water withdrawals from ground or surface water, including 34% of all freshwater withdrawals (Dieter 2018).

Water use for solar panels is minimal and primarily used for cleaning solar panels (Heath 2022; USGS 2018; Dieter 2018). In one recent model, retiring coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants decreased water withdrawals by up to 88% by 2050 (Heath 2022).

Hazardous elements

Solar cells contain potentially hazardous elements (e.g., lead, cadmium). Solar panels are sealed during normal operation, which makes metal leaching unlikely (Summers 2003).

  • To learn more about solar decommissioning and recycling, see our Science Note.

In soil samples taken near and far from 5 year old solar panel installations (Robinson 2019):

  • Lead and cadmium content was the same.
  • Selenium, lithium, strontium, nickel, and barium were found at higher levels in soil near solar panels, but below federal risk thresholds. One suggested source for these elements is the mounting equipment and cement used for the solar panels.

More research is needed to understand the potential for the leaching of hazardous materials from solar panels in actual landfills (Nain 2020) and after natural disasters.

 

Air quality improvements from solar use could save $300-$400 billion in health and environmental costs by 2050.

Burning fuel in combustion power plants or vehicles releases pollution into the air, including particulate matter (tiny pieces of solid or liquid in the air; EIA 2022), greenhouse gases (GHG), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.

  • If electricity generation is decarbonized by 2050, the air quality and health benefits are estimated to save between $300—$400 billion by 2050, depending on the amount of electrification of transportation and buildings (EERE 2021).
Climate

Transportation and power generation account for 52% of U.S. GHGs (EPA 2022).

  • GHG emissions may occur during solar cell manufacturing, their lifetime GHG emissions are 96% lower than coal (NREL 2021).
Health

Reducing air pollution can reduce heart attacks, asthma, hospitalizations, deaths, and lost school and workdays (Heath 2022).

  • Particulate matter is the leading air pollutant contributor to premature mortality.

 

References

A. Robinson, S., & Meindl, G. A. (2019). Potential for leaching of heavy metals and metalloids from crystalline silicon photovoltaic systems. Journal of Natural Resources and Development, 9, 19–24. https://doi.org/10.5027/jnrd.v9i0.02

Abashidze, N., & Taylor, L. O. (2022). Utility-scale solar farms and agricultural land values. Land Economics. https://doi.org/10.3368/le.99.3.102920-0165r  

Dieter, C. A., Maupin, M. A., Caldwell, R. R., Harris, M. A., Ivahnenko, T. I., Lovelace, J. K., Barber, N. L., & Linsey, K. S. (2018). (rep.). Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2015. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1441/circ1441.pdf 

Elmallah, S., Hoen, B., Fujita, K. S., Robson, D., & Brunner, E. (2023). Shedding light on large-scale solar impacts: An analysis of property values and proximity to photovoltaics across six U.S. states. Energy Policy, 175, 113425. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2023.113425  

Heath, G., Ravikumar, D., Ovaitt, S., Walston, L., Curtis, T., Millstein, D., Mirletz, H., Hartmann, H., & McCall, J. (2022). (rep.). Environmental and Circular Economy Implications of Solar Energy in a Decarbonized U.S. Grid . Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy22osti/80818.pdf 

Kruitwagen, L., Story, K. T., Friedrich, J., Byers, L., Skillman, S., & Hepburn, C. (2021). A global inventory of Photovoltaic Solar Energy Generating Units. Nature, 598(7882), 604–610. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03957-7  

Nain, P., & Kumar, A. (2020). Initial metal contents and leaching rate constants of metals leached from end-of-life solar photovoltaic waste: An integrative literature review and analysis. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 119, 109592. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2019.109592  

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). (2021). (rep.). Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electricity Generation: Update. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy21osti/80580.pdf 

Sepanski, A., Reil, F., Vaaßen, W., Janknecht, E., Hupach, U., Bogdanski, N., van Heeckeren, B., Schmidt, H., Bopp, G., Laukamp, H., Grab, R., Philipp, S., Thiem, H., Huber, J., Haselhuhn, R., Häberlin, H., Krutzke, A., Neu, B., Richter, A., … Halfmann, M. (2018). (rep.). Assessing Fire Risks in Photovoltaic Systems and Developing Safety Concepts for Risk Minimization. Jülich. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/articles/assessing-fire-risks-photovoltaic-systems-and-developing-safety-concepts-risk 

Summers, K., & Radde, J. (2003). (rep.). Potential Health and Environmental Impacts Associated With the Manufacture and Use of Photovoltaic Cells. EPRI. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.epri.com/research/products/1000095 

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE). (2021). (rep.). Solar Futures Study. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2021-09/Solar%20Futures%20Study.pdf 

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2019, June 12). Southwestern states have better solar resources and higher solar PV capacity factors. eia. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39832  

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2022, November 23). Electricity explained Electricity and the environment. eia. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-and-the-environment.php  

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2022, August 5). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. EPA. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions  

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). (2018, June 18). Thermoelectric Power Water Use . USGS science for a changing world. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/thermoelectric-power-water-use#:~:text=Much%20of%20the%20electricity%20used,geothermal%20and%20burning%20waste%20material 

Walston, L. J., Li, Y., Hartmann, H. M., Macknick, J., Hanson, A., Nootenboom, C., Lonsdorf, E., & Hellmann, J. (2021). Modeling the ecosystem services of native vegetation management practices at solar energy facilities in the Midwestern United States. Ecosystem Services, 47, 101227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2020.101227  

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