You may have heard that solar power is now cheaper than many other forms of energy. However, lowering the energy bills and producing your own power aren’t the only benefits of installing a photovoltaic system. As a whole, the environment may be better off by using electricity generated from sunlight.
Concerns with Fossil Fuel Generated Electricity
Coal, oil, and natural gas have been traditionally used by power plants to make electricity. The processes they use generate enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. In fact, this is the greatest source of emissions, accounting for 37 percent of CO2 released into the atmosphere. That’s more than both automobile and industry emissions. Plus, there’s also the concern of depleted natural reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas and the waste that is generated while obtaining, refining, and distributing them. These are major contributing factors to the greenhouse effect and climate change, not to mention other impacts of environmental pollution around the world.
Why Solar Is Great for the Environment
It Is Renewable:
No matter how much sunlight is absorbed to generate electricity, there will never be a time, at least within the next 4.5 billion years, that it will run out. And no matter how many solar panels there are, they won’t release carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the environment. On the other hand, fossil fuels are limited and will someday run out. They will continue to harm ecosystems as they are harvested and used. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that if 100 gigawatts of solar power is installed in the United States over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be saved by 2030.
Further Reduction of Emissions:
Aside from 40 percent of CO2 emissions, power plants using fossil fuels account for a major source of other harmful air emissions. These facilities are responsible for 67 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, and 23 percent of the nitrogen oxides released into the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Smog and haze are produced by all three. Many people experience health problems due to excessive levels of these compounds as well. If the current goals for 2030 are met, nitrogen oxide emissions will decrease by as much as 99,000 tons and sulfur dioxide by up to 184,000 tons per year.
In fact, a typical 4 kW solar energy system for a residential home can offset close to 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, over a 25-year period. It’s estimated that is equal to planting over 2,300 trees and not driving over 208,000 miles. For larger systems, about 178 tons of CO2 emissions can be avoided over 30 years and enough emissions prevented to equal over 390,000 miles of driving.
More Water Available:
The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Vision Scenario provides extensive insight into the benefits of solar power. It suggests that with a 4 percent reduction in water withdrawal and a 9 percent reduction in consumption by power plants between now and 2050, enough water can be saved to meet the equivalent of 1.3 million homes. Also, solar power requires 16 times less water than coal power plants and over 20 times less water (per kW) than nuclear power facilities.
Photovoltaic panels do not release any mercury, a toxic metal that is released in large quantities by coal power plants. Nearby bodies of water can contain enough of it to be considered a safety hazard. The absence of sulfur means no acid rain is produced, which can harm the quality and ecology of rivers, lakes, and even forests and croplands. Aside from these, there is no discharge water from power plants, a major contributor to thermal pollution that can kill of aquatic life.
While less carbon comes from nuclear plants, there is plenty of radioactive waste, which can take millions of years to break down. There is no concern about plutonium, uranium, or other harmful materials with solar energy.
Aside from the direct environmental benefits, solar power has many other pros that contribute to a cleaner environment. Homes and businesses that produce their own electricity reduce the demand on the grid. They can also provide excess electricity that can be sent into the system, while reducing dependence on pollution-causing plants and equipment. A less strained grid also helps because it reduces blackouts and brownouts. Renewable, sustainable energy can therefore be shared and improve overall quality of life, especially when connections such as net metering are used to contribute solar energy to the nation’s power supply.
Jobs and Health Represent a Better Environment
The clean energy industry is growing thanks to the prevalence of solar panels. Jobs for producing, distributing, and selling these and related products are employing hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. An increasing demand is fueling this job market. As more people work in clean energy, they are helping to expand an industry that helps the environment in direct and indirect ways.
A cleaner environment means less human exposure to pollution, and fewer people with health problems due to harmful pollutants. For example, nitrogen oxides have been linked to asthma and lung cancer. Sulfur dioxide causes many respiratory problems as well, as does ozone. Pollutants can also contribute to cardiovascular disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm births and birth defects, and fatalities around the world. Fine particulates may enter buildings through doors, windows, and vents so there is often no escape from them if the air is heavily polluted.
As solar power increases in popularity and demand, it is having measurable positive benefits on the environment. Plus, it can be scaled from the largest businesses to the smallest homes, and even be used to power cars. Emissions and land use are minimal and the energy is more plentiful than humanity needs. It is also available anywhere in the world the sun shines. Solar is, therefore, the solution to cutting back on environmental pollution caused by fossil fuel consumption.
Sources: Solar City, NREL, Energy Sage, Energy.gov, Renewableenergysolar.net, Niehs.nih.gov, Solarpowernow.com