Is PV Truly Green? Hell, Yes, Report Says

In 2009, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition sent up a flare bright enough that it could be seen through the glare of a midday sun: “Although the solar [photovoltaics] boom is still in its early stages, disturbing global trends are beginning to emerge,” the group wrote in a white paper [PDF] that went on to detail the risks of careless manufacturing practices and make recommendations for keeping PV from descending in an abyss of environmental degradation.

If that was the stick, wielded to beat back the potential negative consequences of solar power, As You Sow now offers the carrot. Or at least, a decidedly gentler, more positive approach. The group’s new, 52-page report, “Clean & Green, Best Practices in Photovoltaics” [PDF], turns the spotlight not on where the PV industry is falling short, but on where it is following through on the promise of delivering truly clean energy.

solar industry best practices, as you sow

image via Shutterstock

At the report’s foundation is the reminder—you might even call it a rallying declaration—that PV, whatever its possible shortcomings or challenges, is a whole hell of a lot better than that miserable fuel extracted from below ground.

“Even though there are toxic compounds used in the manufacturing of most solar panels, the generation of electricity from solar energy is significantly safer to the environment and workers than production of electricity from coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission,” the report states. “For example, once a solar panel is installed, it generates electricity with zero emissions whereas in 2010, coal-fired power plants in the United States emitted 1,999.6 million tons of carbon dioxide and there were 13,200 deaths in the U.S. directly attributable to particulates from coal-fired power plants.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply March 29, 2012


    It is great to see such a positive report on the solar photovoltaic industry. Installation of a solar panel can significantly cut down on emissions and we can look forward to a greener future.

  • Reply March 29, 2012


    After finally installing my solar PV system over a year ago, I really find it hard to understand all the fuss.  It was easy to install, was surprisingly affordable (especially after the tax incentives – but oil and gas get incentives too!), and I get to sell my excess electricity to the utility.  I still watch TV, still have a computer, a refrigerator, a furnace, a hot tub, etc.  I have a thoroughly modern house, with all the conveniences, and I will never have an electric bill again. 

    • Reply April 4, 2012


       It is nice isnt it, me too

      amortized cost of 3 cents per kWH

  • Reply April 3, 2012

    Norman Benson

    Photovoltaics need lots of area. To meet just California’s present electricity needs, which are in the neighborhood of 100,000 megawatts, imagine 5,770 square miles of solar photovoltaic panels in the Mojave Desert disrupting habitats of endangered plants and animals. Imagine the new power transmission lines to deliver the electricity. Granted, to some extent, this is “inside-the-box thinking;” some PV panels can be put on rooftops so that not all the displacement would be on undeveloped land (One source I checked had put 27 PV panels on his average sized house in Austin, TX. The panels produced about one-third of a typical family’s electricity use).

    • Reply April 3, 2012


      I’ve installed solar panels in New England for about the last 18 months on everything from Ground and Pole mount systems, to roof mounts, custom awnings and every roof you could imagine.  You’re completely correct about the amount of space that would be necessary in order for solar to be able to produce all of the electricity necessary for CA, but you’re also correct that you could find approximately 35-50% of that available space on rooftops, parking garages, streetlights and a million places in between.  Solar is certainly not the option that is going to save the planet, but being able to curtail 1/3 of the electricity used by households and businesses is a very good start, and shouldn’t be overlooked so easily by government and individuals the same.

    • Reply April 4, 2012


       Has anyone thought of installing PV panels over those huge, hot parking lots that are all over the place in LA?  Power, shade and I’m not imagining much environmental impact.

    • Reply April 14, 2012

      John Wade

      I’m building a 2600 SF house now that will be solar, it will use about 1/4 of the roof area for PV to fill 100% of electrical needs, and a little more for the hot water.  I’ll probably do my mother’s house soon.  Same area, about 25% of the roof. 8-9 year payback.  There is plenty of area in our current sunny California cities to get the area needed for our electrical needs.  The Mojave is for large corporations and utilities to get or keep their corner of the market.  5770 square miles sounds like a lot, but 58 miles x 100 miles for all of CA’s electrical needs, its 11-25% of the Mojave depending on the source.  Then reduce the area by 30% or so for current hydro and wind sources, so the area goes down to 4000 sq. mi. max.  Area is not a big problem.  Impacts in the Mojave are an issue though.  

  • Reply April 5, 2012

    solar panel expert

    Making the jump to solar is easy in areas with abundant solar insolation. For those who don’t know about the relationship between solar panels and regional insolation, the information is readily available on wikipedia…and in some states like AZ, the insolation is so high that it makes no sense NOT to go solar for someone willing to invest.

  • Reply April 12, 2012


    I love my PV panels – I don’t pay electric anymore 

  • Reply April 14, 2012


    This report is a crock. Its just another greenwashing of PV put out by people with a vested financial interest.

    The data presented is highly skewed and conveniently lumps all renewables together so that PV get artificially inflated by the benefits that rightly belong only to other alternative energy approach. They should all have been itemized individually.

    Anaerobic digestion technology makes far more sense than PV solar and is far more reliable, greener, less expensive per KwH, functions 24 hours a day in all weather, more rugged, and uses organic wastes which are currently being disposed of in inferior ways.

    For example take a look at the public information about how every community in the US could have such systems for what it costs to build and maintain current sewage systems.

    Look up Schmak or Hertzen corporation systems or ORB IOWEBS

  • Reply April 17, 2012


    My house had a lot of shade trees blocking the roof, but my garage (about 50 ft from house) gets good sun. Is there any hope for me?

Leave a Reply