A breath of fresh air: Retracing the carbon footprint of a solar panel

A breath of fresh air: Retracing the carbon footprint of a solar panel

When it comes to solar energy, most of us tend to focus on the money we pocket thanks to all that free, clean energy stored from the sun. But what else are we saving? And what future are we creating for our families and neighbourhoods?


By now we know that renewable energy is the future if we want to slow climate change. But what does that mean for the average homeowner? Can you even measure the carbon footprint you leave behind by switching to solar panels?

First – the coal hard facts…

You may have heard claims by friends, business leaders and politicians that solar panels have ‘hidden’ carbon footprints that aren’t seeing the light of day. That is, the emissions produced to make the panels outweigh the emissions homeowners save by actually using them.

So, let’s run a fact check.

*insert manic keyboard typing and mouse clicking*

Computer says no!

It’s true that solar panels are not ‘emission free’. Like most things, they too leave behind a carbon footprint (you’re leaving behind a carbon footprint just by reading this article).

However, even when all these factors are added up, solar panels still knock fossil fuels out of the park. To understand why, you need to retrace the steps that create the carbon footprint in the first place.

  • Step 1. Mining the solar panel materials

    It takes energy to mine and process the PV modules and other components that are required to make solar panels.Impact: CO2 is emitted in this process.
  • Step 2: Manufacturing the solar panels

    Factories use large amounts of electricity to produce solar panels, which come in two types. Manufacturing Monocrystalline solar panels involves moulding a silicon block and slicing small wafers. Manufacturing Polycrystalline solar panels involves melting silicon crystals together.Impact: CO2 is emitted in this process.
  • Step 3: Transporting the panels

    Once the solar panels are manufactured, they must be distributed from the factories to retail outlets and ultimately the homeowner’s residence, which requires burning of fuel from jets, trucks and cars.Impact: CO2 is emitted in this process.
  • Step 4: Installing the panels

    Installers must use fuel to travel to the home, use power tools etc. It’s a small amount by comparison, but worth taking into account.Impact: CO2 is emitted in this process.

Wait, I thought solar panels helped the environment?

They do – this is where nature starts to kick some ass.

Those factors above combine to create what is called the ‘carbon debt’ of producing solar panels. Before you can start counting the environmental benefits of solar energy, you need to ‘pay off’ the carbon debt.

We know that as soon as solar panels are installed on your roof, you can expect over 25-years of emission-free energy from the sun – clean energy you would otherwise be burning dirty fossil fuels to create.

The question is, how much energy do solar panels produce? And at what point will they pay off the carbon debt?

Smart people have already researched it

The legends at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have kindly crunched the numbers for us (phew).

Their research tells us that once you’ve taken the carbon debt into account, solar power is responsible for 40g CO2 eq / kWh over its lifetime. Compare that to coal power, which is 700g-1,000g CO2 eq / kWh.

Already you can see a huge difference, but what does that mean in real terms for you as a homeowner?

It’s your time to shine

Imagine you went totally off the grid.

In a sunny location like Perth, 1kW of solar panels produces about 4kWh of electricity per day. So that’s roughly 1,460kWh a year (although electricity output does decrease to 80% output after 25 years.)

Even so, your solar panels would pay off their carbon debt in just 18-40 months (on a scale of Perth to Brussels).

Quick example…

Let’s be uber conservative, and say the solar panels work at 80% efficiency every year of their 25-year lifespan. That means you’ll produce a total of 29,050kWh of energy in that time. Let’s also assume coal power only emits 700g CO2 eq / kWh, not 1000g.


Before Solar (BS) – 2,033 tonnes of carbon.

After Solar (AS) – 116.2 tonnes of carbon.

That means you alone are saving 1,916.8 tonnes of carbon from being released. That’s reducing your home’s carbon footprint by 17 times what it is today.

Imagine if every private residence in Perth installed rooftop solar panels? We would save over 62 MILLION tonnes of carbon from going into the atmosphere…

Every… Single… Year.

What does that mean?

It means that by putting a little energy in, you get a lot back.

A breath of fresh air, right?


Ready to save money and the environment? Solar My Home WA are here to help you find the perfect solar panel solution for your home. Call today for an obligation free quote – (08) 6209 7709 or email info@solarmyhomewa.com.au



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