There are numerous environmental benefits of solar energy. Electricity from solar energy can be generated via thermal applications or photovoltaics (solar panels). The benefits of solar panels, in particular, is what will be highlighted on this page.
Solar energy has long been known as a large-scale potential solution to the dirty and inherently finite sources of energy that society has been reliant on for many decades. In fact, for more than a century, we’ve known about the possibility of transforming sunlight into electricity.
What has taken decades to fully grasp is the devastation that traditional energy sources have had on our environment. For too long now the burning of fossil fuels has led to polluted air, waterways, and significantly increased the acidification of the ocean. Long term and potentially calamitous effects on our climate have been largely attributed to energy industry emissions.
The many ways in which solar panels will improve the world we live in are truly astounding. Utilizing solar power will allow for the eventual ending of fossil fuel emissions. The avoidance of power plant emissions has numerous and widespread ecological advantages. The following information will delve into solar’s abundant environmental strengths, but first let’s consider the problem that must be solved.
According to the EPA, the total U.S. greenhouse emissions for 2013 was 6,673 million metric tons. It can be difficult to picture the enormity of that number, especially considering that we’re talking about something gaseous and not always visible in every American town. However, those that have lived in smog filled cities know all too well the size of this problem.
Another noteworthy item about the statistic just mentioned is that it does include transportation based pollution. Vehicle exhaust contributes just more than 25 percent of all emissions. An explanation of how solar power can also help solve this problem will be mentioned in the advantages of solar further down this page.
Here is a breakdown of the different gases involved and their various effects –
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)– Representing more than 80 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 is the most familiar pollutant. Carbon dioxide emissions occur from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Trees and other wood products contribute to the CO2 concentrations in the air when burned. Once realized into the atmosphere, CO2 can lead to effects lasting thousands of years.
- Methane (CH4) – Coal, natural gas, and oil also contribute to the amount of methane in the atmosphere, currently about 10 percent of total emissions. Livestock and other agricultural processes also contribute to methane emissions. While methane is considered a much more potent greenhouse gas, its life cycle is much shorter at close to 100 years.
- Nitrous Oxide (N2O) – This gas is also emitted through fossil fuel use, industrial, and agricultural activities. While a much smaller percentage of total emissions at 5 percent, this is a very potent greenhouse gas that typically lasts for at least 100 years.
- Fluorinated gases – Include nitrogen trifluoride, hydrofluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and perfluorocarbons. These synthetic greenhouse gases represent just 3 percent of all totals yet these are extremely potent gases. They are released through industrial processes.
We are just now beginning to realize the effects of these greenhouse gas emissions. The scientific community has arrived at an overwhelming consensus that these emissions are altering our climate. World leaders know they must transition to clean energy and are beginning to take steps in that direction. Word is starting to spread about how solar helps the environment and can eventually become a major part of our energy solution.
In the meantime, the burning of millions of tons of coal have polluted the air worldwide. Locally, America’s fracking boom has contributed to unsafe drinking water conditions. Industrial pollution due to the use of fossil fuels have also polluted waterways with wastewater across the country. The world’s oceans have taken the largest impact. Approximately one third of all emissions are eventually absorbed the ocean, increasing acidification levels and threatening sea life of all kinds.
The health effects of these greenhouse gas pollutants are far reaching. According to a 2013 MIT study, approximately 200,000 people die prematurely every year in the United States due to air pollution. These individuals would have lived another decade longer had they not been exposed to pollution.
Worldwide, the situation is considerably worse. More than 3 million people die prematurely from outdoor air pollution. Astonishingly, the same amount of people die prematurely every year due to the effects of indoor air pollution. Millions of those who live third world nations use wood and other biofuels for indoor cooking.
Let’s look into the specific pollutants and their respective effects on health.
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx) – Affects the lining deep within lungs. Linked to asthma and lung cancer.
- Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) – Affects the upper region of lungs. Linked to respiratory symptoms, disease, and cancer. It is also a precursor to acid rain.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – combines with NOx to create ozone. Ozone also affects deep regions in the lungs causing many respiratory illnesses and also believed linked to increase cancer risks.
Solar power can, and will, eventually become the solution to all of our many air pollution problems. The benefits of solar energy completely dwarfs any other source of energy in terms of its untapped potential, environmental advantages, and versatility.
The environmental advantages of solar energy are considerable. While not yet a perfected technology, overall solar panel benefits are enormous. Total lifetime CO2 emissions related to the construction and the eventual recycling of solar panels is minuscule compared to fossil fuels. In fact, a solar panel’s energy payback time period is now much less than a year – meaning that the energy it took to create the panel can be produced by the panel in that short time period.
Solar panels create no emissions during use. This fact alone makes them a far better environmental choice than any fossil fuel. Here are the key advantages of solar –
- Emission Free – Solar creates no emissions during use – completely avoiding additional CO2, NOx, SO2, CH4, and VOCs associated with fossil fuels.
- Abundant Energy – Every year, the amount of solar energy that hits the Earth is more than a 1,000 times the amount that the world uses. If we could capture the total solar energy that hits the planet’s surface over the period of one hour, that would be enough energy to power the world for one year.
- Minimal Land Use – It would take less than 1 percent of the total available land in the United States for solar to provide all of the power the country requires.
- Easily Scalable – Solar pv can be utilized at all scales – from pocket calculators to very large utility scale installations.
- No Water Use – After initial production, there is no water use required for solar panels, unlike all other forms of energy production.
- Power Vehicles – As more and more electric vehicles are produced, overall emissions from vehicles will greatly be reduced and solar power can become the primary source of fuel for these vehicles.
- 5kw System Benefits – The average solar panel system of 5,000 watts can; prevent the emission of more than 300,000 lbs of CO2, prevent the burning of 27,000 lbs of coal, prevents the use of 180,000 gallons of water, is the equivalent of almost 400,000 miles driven, and is the equivalent of almost 3 acres of trees planted.
To summarize, the environmental benefits of solar energy are truly remarkable. We are just now starting to utilize and realize the benefits of solar panels. It is truly amazing to realize that one form of energy has the potential to improve our environment, protect the health of people everywhere, and provide us with more than enough energy.
We can all look forward to clearer skies, cleaner waterways, and abundant energy for all in the coming years.