What Are The Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy?

Here's why you should make the switch...

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Why Are People Turning To Solar?

Solar energy, or solar power, can be defined as the ability to harness the energy of the sun’s rays, whether by light or heat, and convert it into a useful power.

The technology used to produce solar power has been around for over 100 years and is growing in popularity at a rapid pace.

Although the escalating adoption of solar energy is largely in response to lowered electricity costs, the technology is also becoming popular for:

  1. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Better public health
  3. Conserving water
  4. Conserving land
  5. Overall sustainability

In this article, we will answer the question, “How does solar solar energy affect the environment?”.

We’ll detail five areas where solar power creates a positive impact on the environment.

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions

First and foremost, the most obvious benefits of solar energy to the environment over a traditional fossil fuel source is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Whenever a fossil fuel like coal, petroleum, or natural gas is burned to create energy, the process releases harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

These compounds are some of the leading causes of global warming as they become trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and cause global temperatures to rise.

Solar power does not release any greenhouse gases while energy is being produced from the sun’s rays.

Whether it is a photovoltaic (PV) system of solar panels or a solar thermal collector, the process at which power is harnessed from the sun and transferred into usable energy does release any greenhouse gases.

Although there is some carbon dioxide produced during the construction of PV solar panels, it is estimated that overall solar energy is 20x “cleaner” than coal.

This catastrophic difference in harmful gas emissions adopted at a global scale has the potential to create and reap the benefits of an immense positive environmental impact of solar energy in combating the effects of climate change.

To put this process into a tangible set of numbers, let’s say an average household rooftop solar panel system is about the size of 5 kW.

By choosing to produce electricity on their roof, rather than purchase all of the energy from the utility, homeowners with solar panels are said to reduce 103 metric tonnes of carbon emissions over the course of the systems lifetime.

These staggering statistics display that one home’s decision to use solar power can have a large effect on the environment.

The reduction of 103 metric tons of carbon emissions is about equivalent to eliminating one commercial aircraft flight from New York to London or planting 150 trees each year.

In the United States, the EPA has an amazing online tool that allows you to calculate the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are created by the kWh of your electric bill without solar.

The effects are calculated and displayed in comparison to several forms of carbon dioxide equivalents such as passenger vehicles driven, gasoline consumed, or barrels of oil used.

Better Public Health

Not only does solar energy reduce greenhouse gases that have a long term negative effect on the planet, but one of the positive effects of solar energy is the immediate reduction of the amount of pollution in the air.

Although it may seem a bit obvious, it is very important to note that overall better air quality leads to better public health.

Harmful pollutants such as nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter emissions are released into the air by burning fossil fuels.

These substances have been linked to many respiratory problems such as chronic bronchitis and cardiovascular disorders as well as an increased rate of premature deaths according to a Harvard study.

Solar power’s lack of harmful gas emissions would significantly increase the air quality of inhabitants that live near power plants in which traditional sources of energy are being produced.

If solar panels replace the burning of fossil fuels, the better air quality would reduce neighbor’s likelihood to contract respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

Vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, or those with breathing problems would benefit the most from cleaner air quality and overall quality of life would increase for everyone who is currently exposed to harmful emissions.

Reduced Water Usage

Another one of the benefits of solar energy and other renewable energy sources is the drop in overall water use during the production of electricity.

Although this may be surprising to some, solar energy can cut down on water use by up to 75% by the year 2030 when compared to traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

As clean water is one of the world’s most precious resources, this environmental benefit of solar energy is not to be ignored.

In addition to clean drinking water providing life for people around the planet, a sustainable watershed is important for keeping ecosystems healthy, especially in drier climates.

As practically every living thing on the planet uses water to sustain life, any amount of it that can be saved during the production of energy is crucial.

The additional water saved by using solar power instead of fossil fuels could then be used for agricultural production or rehabilitating depleted aquatic and land based habitats.

A sustained, healthy, and balanced ecosystem is the key benefit of the positive, environmental impact of solar energy.

Reduced Land Usage

Not only does solar reduce the water usage and provide cleaner air quality, but switching to solar energy also reduces the use of another one of the earth’s most precious resources: land.

Although it is true that solar panel farms take up a decent amount of land when being built and used to harness the power of the sun, it is the versatility of where solar can be placed that truly makes the technology unique and efficient compared to other sources of power.

For instance, in cities across the country solar panels are being installed atop parking lots. These installations serve a dual purpose, as not only do the parking lots now become a power plant for clean energy generation, but there is an added benefit of shade and weather coverage for the cars parked below.

In a similar vein, most residential solar power systems are built on the roofs of residential homes or commercial businesses.

By placing the solar panels on the roof, homeowners and businesses alike are using space that would be otherwise unused to generate electricity.

Outside of traditional cities, solar power can also be used in places where no other energy source could be placed. In this article from Yale University, it is said that not only can solar power be placed atop water as a floating installation, but it can also be used in undesirable locations such as old Superfund sites.

The toxic wastelands created by blunders of our past can be reutilized as solar farms, rather than housing which would have inherent health risks for tenants of the property.

This is similar to the popular phenomenon of repurposing abandoned coal mines to solar farms. Excavated land around the globe is finding a new life, as more and more facilities once used to dig fossil fuels from the earth are now used to generate power from the sun.

Coal to solar conversions may in fact be the most visible and tangible direct improvements in clean energy production, as the sites are still being used to generate power, but in a cleaner, sustainable way.

Sustainable Source of Power

It has been alluded to a few times in this article already, but one of the most important features of why solar energy is good for the environment is the fact that solar energy is a completely sustainable source of power.

When looking into history, the world today can be compared on a microscopic scale to the civilization on Easter Island.

Once a thriving island nation, the inhabitants of Easter Island depleted the island’s resources by cutting down all of the available palm trees.

This led to a climate related doom, as the island’s soil used for its agriculture was eroded away by heavy rainstorms, as the land was no longer covered by the large tree’s canopy.

Without food, the famine brought on wars and the ultimate demise of the entire civilization.

Today, we can compare the tiny nation of Easter Island, known for its enormous sculptures, to the entire planet Earth.

In the modern age, most civilized countries burn fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, or natural gas in order to power automobiles, homes, and electronics.

A major problem with fossil fuels is that they are substances which are found inside of the earth and are therefore inherently limited.

In fact, some estimates believe that at the rate in which fossil fuels are being consumed right now, the earth can potentially run out of oil and coal in as little as 53 and 110 years, respectively.

This short timeline may be a bit scary to some, which serves as a powerful motivator to adopt sustainable technology.

Of course, this begs the question…

“What are solar panels made of?”

One word…

SILICON.

Why Is Silicon Great For Solar Power?

Silicon is a sustainable source of energy because not only is it the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen, but it can also be grown in a lab if it were ever to run out.

Silicon naturally converts light into electricity and can often be seen at beaches or in rivers appearing as small, shiny black specks in the sand.

By assembling together silicon wafers, solar panels utilize technology that can be used for generations without the fear that it may run out.

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