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Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems

Article  in  Energy Sources Part A Recovery Utilization and Environmental Effects · December 2008
DOI: 10.1080/15567030701512733


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3 authors, including:

Huseyin Gunerhan Arif Hepbasli

Ege University Yasar University


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Energy Sources, Part A, 31:131–138, 2009
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1556-7036 print/1556-7230 online
DOI: 10.1080/15567030701512733

Environmental Impacts from the

Solar Energy Systems


Mechanical Engineering Department, Faculty of Engineering, Ege University,
Bornova, Izmir, Turkey
M.Sc. Student in Center for Environmental Studies, Ege University, Bornova,
Izmir, Turkey

Abstract Solar energy technologies offer a clean, renewable, and domestic energy
source, and are essential components of a sustainable energy future. Solar energy
systems (i.e., photovoltaics, solar thermal) provide significant environmental benefits
in comparison to the conventional energy sources. It is known that these systems
have some minor negative impacts on the environment during their production and
operation. This study presents an overview of some positive impacts of the solar
energy systems and negative impacts covered by environmental impact assessment.

Keywords environmental impact, renewable energy, solar energy systems

Extensive fossil fuel consumption in almost all human activities has led to some undesir-
able phenomena such as atmospheric and environmental pollutions, which have not been
experienced before in known human history. Consequently, global warming, greenhouse
affect, climate change, ozone layer depletion, and acid rain terminologies started to
appear in the literature frequently. Since 1970, it has been understood scientifically by
experiments and researches that these phenomena are closely related to fossil fuel uses
because they emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and methane (CH4 ),
which hinder the long-wave terrestrial radiation escape into space, and, consequently, the
earth troposphere becomes warmer. In order to avoid further impacts of these phenomena,
the two concentrative alternatives are either to improve the fossil fuel quality with
reductions in their harmful emissions into the atmosphere or, more significantly, to replace
fossil fuel usage as much as possible with environmentally friendly, clean, and renewable
energy sources. Among these sources, solar energy comes at the top of the list due to its
abundance and more even distribution in nature than any other renewable energy type,
such as wind, geothermal, hydro, wave, and tidal energies (Sen, 2004).
Solar energy technologies are essential components of a sustainable energy future.
Energy from fossil fuels may be inexpensive and assurances may have been given of the
plentiful supplies of petroleum and other fossil fuels, but these fuels are finite in nature
and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (IEA, 2002).

Address correspondence to Dr. Arif Hepbasli, Mechanical Engineering Department, Faculty

of Engineering, Ege University, 35100 Bornova, Izmir, Turkey. E-mail:

132 H. Gunerhan et al.

When energy demands increase, energy production and its negative impacts on the
environment increase as well. As a result, environmental pollution became a global
threat. Therefore, the importance of unpolluted energy sources such as solar energy
has increased in recent years. But even solar energy technologies have introduced some
level of environmental effects. In this study, these effects will be discussed and necessary
conditions to avoid this environmental effects will be investigated.

Solar Energy
Solar energy has been used since time immemorial to dry agricultural products, to provide
space heat in cold seasons, or to create ventilation in homes, applications which are still
used in many developing countries. More than 2,000 years ago, Heron of Alexandria
constructed a simple water pump driven by solar energy, and in 214 B.C., Archimedes of
Syracuse used concentrating solar mirrors to set fire to Roman ships (Vanderhulst et al.,
The sun showers the earth with a nearly infinite supply of energy. Each day more
solar energy falls to the earth than the total amount of energy the planet’s 5.9 billion
inhabitants would consume in 27 years. While it is neither possible nor necessary to use
but a small portion of this energy, the potential of solar energy was hardly tapped. Only in
the last few decades, when growing energy demands, increasing environmental problems,
and declining fossil fuel resources made us look to alternative energy options, has the
attention been focused on truly exploiting this tremendous resource (NREL, 2002).
The sun is the main energy source of the earth. Almost all of the natural energy
sources (excluding nuclear and geothermal energy) on the earth are a converted form of
solar energy. For example, water cycle, wind cycle, and other energy systems require
solar energy as the primary driving source. Due to being a relatively environmentally
friendly energy form, solar energy systems have covered a wide range of applications in
the recent years. It is also a relatively infinite energy source compared to fossil energy
forms (Atagunduz, 1989).

Solar Energy Systems

Solar Collectors
There are basically three types of collectors: flat-plate, evacuated-tube, and concentrating.
Flat-plate collectors are the most commonly used types.
1. Flat-plate collectors: The basic working principle of these collectors is based on
the conversion of the solar energy to the thermal energy. Flat-plate collectors are
made of a glass cover as a transparent material, an absorbing plate, and a body.
Radiation passed through the glass plate is absorbed by the solar plate. This plate
is covered with paints or special surfaces for high absorbing properties. Almost
90% of the solar radiation felt on the surface are absorbed by these plates. The
remaining are radiated back as thermal radiation and convective losses.
2. Concentrating collectors: These collectors are used to obtain higher enthalpy
water or other processing fluids. Usually temperatures above 140ıC cannot be
obtained by flat-plate solar collectors, and concentrating collectors are utilized
above 140ıC. Concentrating collectors are made of two components, namely, the
optical system and the receiver. The function of the optical system is to direct
Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems 133

and focus the solar rays to the receiver. The function of the receiver is to absorb
the solar rays and convert it to the thermal energy. The receiver is made of
absorber, protection, and isolation parts. The ratio of open space for solar rays to
the receiver space where the solar rays will be absorbed is called the condensing
ratio. Concentrating collectors can be classified according to their condensing
ratios (Atagunduz, 1989):
 flat receiver and flat reflectors
 pipe or spherical-shaped receiver and parabolic reflectors
 pipe or spherical-shaped receiver and flat, moving reflectors in separate
 pipe or spherical-shaped receiver and flat, single-moving reflectors.

3. Evacuated-tube collectors: Evacuated tubes are the absorber of the solar water
heater. They absorb solar energy converting it into heat for use in water heating.
Evacuated tubes have already been used for years in Germany, Canada, China,
and the UK. There are several types of evacuated tubes in use in the solar industry
(Apricus, 2006).

Solar Heating
1. Active heating systems: There are examples of solar active heating systems, like
heating the water by solar collectors and the transmission of heated water to the
existing central heating installation, and thus the transportation of heated air for
needed areas.
2. Passive heating systems: Passive heating systems using solar energy operate as
a ray trap. Solar radiation enters a covered volume through glass and similar
transparent materials and is absorbed by some absorbing surfaces. The heated
surfaces radiate energy by radiation, but these heat rays cannot pass through the
glass surface where sun rays can get through. Thus, the heat energy carried by
the solar rays is kept inside (Atagunduz, 1989).

Drying Using Solar Energy

The drying process can be defined as the removal of water from a solid substance by
evaporation. When the energy needed by this process is supplied by solar energy, this is
called “drying using solar energy.”
Solar drying is one of the oldest solar applications of mankind. The simplest solar
dryer, at zero cost, is a black asphalt road on which people spread their grains to increase
the natural (solar) drying process (NREL, 2002).

Electrical Energy Converters

1. Solar cells: Solar cells are systems that convert solar rays to electrical power.
Radiation energy radiated as electromagnetic waves that reach the surfaces of
the solar cells cause a photo-electromotive power with the help of the forming of
electron/deflection pairs during the P-N transition of the semi-conductive crystals.
These pairs get separated in the electrical area during the P-N transition and thus
cause a current in the circuit that was connected to the semi-conductive crystal.
134 H. Gunerhan et al.

2. Thermal solar power systems: In these systems, solar radiation is concentrated

by some concentrators and boiled to a working fluid that goes to a thermal cycle
(Rankine cycle is the most common one, although Kalina and similar multi-liquid
working fluid cycles are starting to take a place) and work created through the
thermal cycle is converted to electricity by a electrical generator. Another form
of thermal solar power system can convert solar energy to a hydrocarbon fuel,
and stored hydrocarbon fuel can be reconverted to electrical energy by an internal
combustion engine generator set-up.

Environmental Impact Assessment

The importance of the sustainable development concept has increased in Turkey as
in the whole world. As a result, some new regulations enforce that all development
projects should be compatible with the environmental criterions. An environmental impact
assessment should be carried out to make sure that projects are compatible with the
environmental criterions. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) can be defined as a
process of environmental management, planning, and decision-making with a purpose
of keeping and improving the quality of the environment. The main goal is to develop
environmentally friendly industrialization. With this kind of environmentally friendly
industrialization, “sustainable development” can be a possibility in the future by keeping
the usage/protection balance between economical development and the environmental
The EIA regulations in Turkey have become valid in the official gazette of 07/02/1993,
no. 21489, and were followed by the EIA regulations of 1993, 1997, 2002 and 2003.
Solar energy systems are environmentally friendly systems. However, constructions
of solar energy systems should still be subjected to the EIA process and thus help
minimize the potential negative impacts on the environment (EIA, 2006).

Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems

in the Example of Solar Cells
Solar energy is a lot cleaner when compared with conventional energy sources. Solar
energy systems have many significant advantages, like being cheaper and not producing
any pollutants during operation, and being almost an infinite energy source when com-
pared with fossil fuels. Nevertheless, solar energy systems have some certain negative
impacts on the environment just like any other energy system (Tsoutsos et al., 2005).
Some of these impacts will be summarized in this section.

Land Use and Thermal Pollution

Solar cells (photovoltaics) have miscellaneous impacts on the natural ecosystem. These
impacts are related to some specific factors, like the area and the topography of land that
would be covered, sensitive ecosystems, and biodiversity. The application of the solar
cells in cultivable land can cause possible harm on the land’s productive areas (Tsoutsos
et al., 2005). Large-scale utilization of the land also effects thermal balance of the area
by absorbing more energy by the earth than otherwise would be reflected by the surface
back to space. A serious solar power application needs to utilize square kilometers of
Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems 135

desert area. Thermal balance of this land space can certainly be effected by such an
application. Also, additional heat might destroy a few species living in this kind of harsh
environment. In order to avoid this big land utilization, space solar power stations are
also in consideration, but energy from these systems should be transported to the earth as
microwave, which could cause radiation pollution and endanger bird life passing through
the irradiated zone.

Discharge of Pollutants
Solar cells do not emit any pollutants during their operations. But solar cell modules
contain some toxic substances, and there is a potential risk of releasing these chemicals
to the environment during a fire. Necessary precautions should be taken for emergency
situations like fire. The possibility of an accidental release of the chemicals of the solar
cell modules to soil and groundwater poses a great threat for the environment (Tsoutsos
et al., 2005).

Visual Impacts
There will be some visual impacts depending on the type of the scheme and the surround-
ings of the solar cells. Especially for applications on the buildings, solar cells can be used
as a cladding material that could be integrated into the building during the construction
phase. Solar cell applications after the construction phase of the buildings might cause
negative visual impacts. Solar cell utilization should be planned at the architectural phase
and fitted to the building to minimize visual pollution. For the other application areas,
proper sitting and design are important factors, especially for large solar cell applications.
Another important factor about the control of the visual impacts is the use of color.
Enough care should be taken for the usage of proper colors while assembling the solar
cell modules (Tsoutsos et al., 2005).

Impacts on Natural Resources

Despite being a benign energy system during operation, solar cells have some negative
impacts on the environment during their production phase like many other systems. The
energy needed for the production of solar energy systems is still produced in conventional
methods today. Some toxic chemical substances used during the production phase are
produced as a by-product. Especially, the solar cell batteries pose a threat on natural
resources by having a short lifespan and containing heavy metals such as cadmium
(Tsoutsos et al., 2005).

Air Pollution
Solar cells do not emit any substances to the air during operation. But there could be
some emissions during manufacturing and transport. The emissions associated with the
transport of the modules are insignificant when compared with the emissions associated
with the manufacture. Transport emissions are 0.1–1% of the manufacturing emissions.
In the case of poly- and mono-crystalline modules, the estimated emissions are 2.757–
3.845 kg CO2 /kWp, 5.049–5.524 kg SO2 /kWp, and 4.507–5.273 NOx /kWp (kWp: peak
kilowatt) (Tsoutsos et al., 2005).
136 H. Gunerhan et al.

Noise Intrusion
Solar cells do not make a noise during operation. But during the construction phase,
there will be a little noise as usual in other construction activities.

Visual Burdens
The urbanization process that accelerated with the industrialization has brought a few
problems that cause burdens on the environment despite many helpful advances. Ex-
cepting for the concrete problems, like air, soil, and water pollution, there has been a
new pollution fact that is led by visual burdens and noise, which have burdens on the
psychological structure rather than physical and chemical structures of the human body.
Visual burdens can be defined as irregular forms that usually exist in the natural and
cultural environment, which mostly appear indirectly and cause negative symbols on the
human memory. Visual burdens have mostly psychological effects on the human being
but could effect the physical structure of the environment and even could stop some of
the environment’s functions as well.
Today, visual burdens have become a great problem due to the lack of support of
the long-term planning in the urbanization process. There has been an increase in the
demands for home use of solar thermal energy systems lately, but these systems cause
an increase in the visual burdens due to the insufficient legal arrangements and lack
of public consciousness. As there are good examples of solar energy systems that are
integrated into the buildings during the construction phase (Figure 1), in Turkey these
systems are usually attached to buildings after the construction phase and thus make the
already low visual quality of these buildings worse (Figure 2).
To prevent the visual burdens of the solar energy systems on the buildings, a
professional group should be hired, and solar energy systems should be integrated with
the building during the construction phase, with proper planning and application. But, if
there are necessary situations where solar energy systems should be attached to buildings
after construction, giving these systems an aesthetic form could be a short-term solution.
Especially for the apartment houses where roof space isn’t large enough for solar energy

Figure 1. An example of solar cells that are not causing visual burdens.
Environmental Impacts from the Solar Energy Systems 137

Figure 2. An example of solar collectors causing visual burdens.

systems of each of the flats, these personal systems should be evaded and a central
system should be chosen. It is obvious that these systems should be standardized and the
community should be educated (Al, 1995).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Solar energy is increasing in importance as an alternative energy source. It has become
indispensable today due to being an environmentally friendly and infinite energy source.
But solar energy systems have some impacts on the environment. These potential impacts
depend on the size and nature of the project and are site specific. Most of these burdens
are associated with loss of amenity (Tsoutsos et al., 2005).
Negative impacts of the solar energy systems could be minimized with appropriate
measures. First, site choosing should be done carefully before application. Roofs are the
best areas for little buildings, and solar cell modules are good alternatives for glass cover
on the sides of larger buildings, like skyscrapers. In order not to cause visual burdens,
solar modules should be used as construction material during the construction phase, and
they should be applied totally integrated with the buildings. An EIA analysis should be
done especially for central solar energy systems.
There are miscellaneous precautions that could be taken to minimize the environ-
mental impacts of the solar energy systems. Because of the toxic substances used in the
solar cell modules, it will be wise to increase the module efficiency and lifespan, and
research the possibilities of recycling.

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Apricus. A new era in solar hot water. Retrieved December 11, 2006, from
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Atagunduz, G. 1989. Fundamentals of the Solar Energy and Its Applications. Solar Energy Institute
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technologies. Energy Policy 33:289–296.
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