Small scale solar photo-voltaic: Impacts on nature and people
17 May 2012 | Fact sheet
Are you planning to fund, build or manage a solar photovoltaic (PV) project? Have you considered the environmental, social and economic issues this can raise? Are you prepared to manage these issues?
Pacific Energy Projects: Impacts on nature and people
TYPICAL PHOTOVOLTAIC PROJECTS
Photovoltaic projects generate electricity from the sun’s rays. Usually a series of solar cells is set in panels, generating DC (Direct Current) electricity. An inverter then converts the electricity to AC (Alternating Current).
Stand alone solar PV system – These are autonomous systems, also known as off-grid systems, i.e. not connected to the grid network. Electricity is supplied directly to the user, supported by a battery. PV systems are commonly used in the Pacific for lighting and electricity, and vary in size and type with installations typically around 20Wp-1kWp.
Grid-connected solar PV system – PV systems that are connected to the electricity network (grid) generate power just as standalone systems do. However to integrate them with other power sources, sophisticated monitoring and load control equipment is used to keep the grid stable. Grid-connected PV may be building-integrated PV, or may be located remotely such as ‘solar farms’ .
PHOTOVOLTAIC PROJECT DEVELOPMENT
The best time to build positive outcomes and avoid negative impacts is during development and design. Locating and orienting the solar panels properly is the key to good output – avoid shadows, match the panels’ angle to your latitude, minimise cabling and ensure safe maintenance access. Think through the environmental and social implications for all the PV system components: from generation, distribution and storage, to use. This should cover the whole system life: design, construction, operation, maintenance, decommissioning and disposal.
It is important that the project is locally relevant, so you will need to be well informed in your decisions– visit the site, talk to the local people, monitor with equipment, or do research. Good, early communication is important for a sustainable project, so the community and future owners feel responsible and are equipped to manage the project. Making good decisions at the start is cheapest in the long term.
Solar PV systems do not emit any greenhouse gases. They are a proven technology, used safely across the Pacific. A 100W solar module is estimated to prevent over two tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime, generating much more electricity then used in production. Operating PV systems make no noise and do not pollute. Solar power is therefore clean, silent, and freely available.
Solar PV systems have proved the best option for electricity access in remote, rural areas. They provide quality lighting for evening study, household chores and community gatherings, freeing up productive daylight hours. Accessible electricity also enables simple home appliances such as radios, TVs and refrigerators. Developing remote, rural areas can provide an alternative to urban migration. Moreover, a PV system avoids the use of expensive and harmful petroleum fuels. However, PV systems need care and maintenance for a long life, which requires households to save money. If the PV system is not maintained, such as buying replacement batteries, it can fail. And if a system fails, the community can then perceive the technology itself negatively.
As more and more solar PV systems are installed, new issues and opportunities can arise. PV systems are often mounted on rooftops, but larger or multiple systems require more space, away from trees, which can raise land ownership and access issues. Increasing use of PV systems can produce a competitive market for parts, equipment, and maintenance skills, which helps everyone. Unfortunately, PV systems – and the electrical appliances they enable – create waste that is not biodegradable. If these wastes are released to the environment they can harm plants, animals, fish and people, polluting the environment for many years. Projects and organisations that promote PV systems, especially in rural and remote areas, must plan safe waste disposal.
Further information on additional resources can be found on the PDF available for download.