You may have heard some people argue that burning coal for electricity generation is actually better for the environment than building new renewables like solar. How did they get to that conclusion? Well, they argue that the manufacturing processes involved with solar technologies are on a par or worse for the environment than just using coal because the materials and minerals that solar panels are made out of need to be mined, smelted, imported etc. which does have an environmental cost. 

But how does solar really compare to coal?

 “The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions.” So clearly it is of vital importance in the fight against the climate crisis to be getting our electricity from genuinely clean, environmentally friendly sources.

In order to accurately compare them you need to look at the entire life-span of solar energy and coal, it’s not just about the creation of the solar panels or power plant but the impacts that each have throughout its lifespan. This is referred to as Life Cycle Analysis, LCAs assess not only the environmental cost of the creation of these technologies, such as mining, but also the ongoing cost and benefit.

Solar panels are made of glass, aluminium, silicon, tin and rarer metals including indium, gallium and germanium. The mining of these materials does produce emissions. However, According to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), solar panels generally last for 30 years and during this time they produce clean energy from the sun instead of burning fossil fuel.

Coal not only requires mining but importing (most of the coal we use for electricity generation in Aotearoa is from Indonesia), and continual combustion causing emissions throughout its life-time compared to lifetimes of zero emissions produced by solar and wind. 

The NREL has compared the LCAs for both coal and solar and found that even when accounting for the environmental impact in its establishment, solar energy is about 20 times more environmentally friendly per kilowatt-hour (kWh) generated and wind is about 80 times friendlier than coal. 

But what about batteries? Batteries are sometimes used with solar and wind energy to store extra electricity for later use. But even when analysing the LCAs of batteries solar and wind are still more environmentally friendly than coal.

Yes, there is an environmental cost in the production and establishment of solar. Just like there is for coal, but when you look at the entire lifespan of each, solar energy is indisputably better for the environment than coal is. Even when accounting for the environmental costs related to its production, its ongoing clean, green energy that it produces during its lifetime is crucial in fighting the climate crisis.

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