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November 13, 2023

With utility-scale solar installations becoming a hot topic here in Arizona, especially in Mohave County, there has been a lot of chatter about how solar panels impact our environment and economy. As is the case with many important topics, valuable data and misinformation become intertwined, making it hard for Arizonans to parse fact from fiction. 

Renewable energy and a more sustainable, reliable grid are vital to Arizona’s future, but so is the limited amount of water we have here in the deserts and mountains of our great state. So what’s the truth about how much water solar panels require versus fossil fuels like natural gas power plants, which are the largest source of energy generation in Arizona?

Solar Panels and Water Usage

Resources Required for Solar Panel Manufacturing

While the manufacturing of solar panels does involve some environmental impact, notably through the utilization of coal-fired electricity plants to melt silica rock, advancements in technology have progressively diminished this impact. The energy cost payback from using a solar panel, compared to its manufacturing energy cost, is typically achieved in less than 4 years, with the panels continuing to generate clean energy for 25-30 years. 

Additionally, solar power conserves substantial amounts of freshwater, a crucial consideration in arid regions like Arizona, by mitigating the need for water in energy production and minimizing water pollution, compared to fossil fuel-based energy production - as described in the next section.

How Much Water Does it Take to Clean Solar Panels?

Solar panels generate electricity from sunlight, and the more direct that sunlight is, the more electricity they will generate. Obstructions can reduce the efficiency of solar panels, and these obstructions can include things like trees and plant life, buildings, or even dust and dirt in the air that settles on solar panel surfaces. When solar panels get dirty enough, it is important to clean them to ensure maximum efficiency, and while the world's best minds are at work creating water-less cleaning solutions, the best way to clean solar panels at present is with water. 

So, how much water does it actually take to clean solar panels? For every megawatt-hour (MWh), it takes an estimated 20 gallons of water to keep them clean enough to maintain efficiency for the year. If we take an example residential system size of 4 kw, that's roughly 3.2 MWh for the year, and 70 gallons of water—the equivalent of taking one less bath per year. 

Solar accounts for 9.9% of all power generation in Arizona in 2022. (source: The U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Fossil Fuels and Water Usage

When it comes to generating electricity using fossil fuels, water is also required to keep equipment at safe temperatures. Natural gas accounts for 41.6% of electricity generation in Arizona, and according to the U. S. Department of Energy, natural gas power plants averaged a water-withdrawal intensity of 2,803 gal/MWh.

The Griffiths Energy plant is a 600 MW natural gas power plant, creating a maximum of 5,256,000 MWh in a year. This adds up to an estimated 14,732,568,000 gallons of water for natural gas energy production.

The Facts: Solar Panels Require Less Water Than Natural Gas

So here’s the breakdown for every MWh:

  • Solar Energy = 20 gallons of water
  • Natural Gas = 2,803 gallons of water! 

As we navigate the complex landscape of energy production and its environmental impact, one fact remains crystal clear: solar panels, while they still do require some water usage, are undeniably more water-efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts. Solar panels offer a greener, more water-efficient path forward for Arizona and beyond. 

As we continue to harness the power of the sun to meet our energy needs, we also honor the desert's most precious resource—water—ensuring a brighter and more sustainable tomorrow for all Arizonans.

Energy Solution Providers has been installing solar panels in Arizona for over two decades. We care deeply about protecting Arizona’s natural resources and are proud to help local homeowners and businesses make the switch to clean, renewable solar energy. 

To learn more about residential or commercial solar installation in AZ, give us a call. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have about the environmental impact of your energy usage! 

Take control of your home energy production and carbon footprint, with solar panel installation. Call Energy Solution Providers at 520-868-0700 and get a solar quote, fast!