One of the best reasons to choose solar energy is to protect the environment. By swapping to solar panels, you could immediately reduce your home’s carbon footprint by more than 15,000 pounds of C02 every year.
That being said, solar energy and the environment is a complex issue. Understanding it requires an exploration of several different areas and an honest look at the pros and cons of the environmental impact of solar energy as it compares to traditional sources of power.
That is why we have put together this article. Keep reading to learn:
- How solar energy helps the environment
- Ways in which solar energy may harm the environment
- An analysis of how much choosing solar energy for your home will protect the environment
How solar energy helps the environment
Solar energy is growing in popularity for several reasons. However, perhaps the main reason that this alternative form of energy is gaining steam is the impact that solar energy has on the environment.
In this section, we will cover the three primary ways that choosing solar energy helps the environment.
Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, helps global warming
Greenhouse gasses are gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere. This causes global temperatures to rise and leads to extreme weather, food supply disruptions, increased wildfires, melting ice caps, and other negative outcomes.
Traditional sources of power reduce a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Solar energy is viewed as better for the environment because it gives homeowners and companies the power that they need to continue operating as normal without emitting such a large amount of greenhouse gas into the environment.
Every kilowatt of solar energy power that you install on your property can reduce your home’s carbon emissions by 3,000 pounds each year. The more people that do this, the bigger the impact that it has on the environment.
Solar’s positive impact on water and air
Solar energy also has a tremendous impact on water and air, which are both so important to our health and wellness.
Traditional power plants use massive amounts of water to keep their systems cool while they generate electricity. Estimates suggest that the amount of water used is over 15,500 gallons per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.
That’s a lot of water to be using on electricity generation -- especially when you consider that water scarcity is becoming more and more of a problem as global warming worsens.
Solar energy fixes this problem. It helps the environment by conserving water. That’s because, unlike traditional power plants, solar energy panels do not need to use any water to cool themselves down while generating power.
Solar’s environmental impact also extends to air. Solar systems are able to create power without emitting any air pollution or greenhouse gasses.
Traditional electricity generation, on the other hand, emits about 1,448 million metric tons of C02 emissions per year. That accounts for roughly 32% of the total U.S. C02 emissions.
As more people choose solar, traditional electricity generation facilities will face lower demand and will therefore begin generating less energy. This can result in a potentially large decrease in the amount of C02 that gets released into the air each year.
Reduces strain on finite resources
Traditional power generation relies on fossil fuels to create energy. However, there is only a finite amount of these resources available on the planet. Once they run out, they run out forever.
Solar energy helps to preserve these valuable resources because solar systems can create power without using fossil fuels. This frees up the finite resources that we have left on the planet to be used for the purposes that truly matter.
Potentially negative impacts of solar systems on the environment
When talking about solar energy and the environment, it is always important to paint a complete picture. Although there are many ways that solar energy helps the environment, solar systems are not perfect.
In this section, we will cover three ways that solar energy could potentially harm the environment.
Many solar panels are made out of materials with toxic chemicals. For example, each of the following substances may be found in a typical solar panel:
- Cadmium telluride
- Copper indium selenide
- Cadmium gallium
- Copper indium gallium
- Silicon tetrachloride
- Polyvinyl fluoride
Of particular note is silicon tetrachloride. This substance is very toxic to humans. If it’s not handled properly, it can cause skin burns. It also can release harmful air pollutants that contribute to lung disease.
Disposability and recyclability of solar panels
Quality solar panels can last for 25 years or even longer. However, the chemical content of solar panels makes it challenging to dispose of them properly once they have reached the end of their lifespan.
If solar panels are not disposed of properly, the toxic chemicals from the materials they’re made out of could leak into groundwater supplies and negatively impact the environment in that way.
Thankfully, solar panel recycling is becoming increasingly common and easier to do. Many solar panels use non-hazardous waste such as aluminum, glass, and copper wire. These components can be reused for other purposes.
The toxic parts of solar panels can also sometimes be reused. However, doing so is still a challenge. That’s why it’s very important to take solar panels to recycling centers that specialize in reusing them.
That being said, there are still very few solar panel recycling centers in the United States because the U.S. hasn’t had very many defunct solar systems to deal with yet. As the years go by, this should change as the demand for solar panel recycling centers rises.
Impact of manufacturing solar systems
The process of manufacturing solar systems isn’t good for the environment. Fabrication requires the use of harmful chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid. The manufacturing process also uses water and electricity, each of which emits greenhouse gasses into the environment.
There are various organizations fighting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the solar system manufacturing process. The industry is still relatively young and it’s reasonable to expect improvements to be made in this area as more data becomes available and companies adapt to new information.
Weighing the pros and cons of solar energy and the environment
We have covered the ways that solar energy helps the environment and we’ve looked at some ways that it can negatively impact the environment as well. Now let’s consider whether solar energy is a net positive for the environment or a net negative.
In this section, we will cover three factors to consider when weighing the pros and cons of solar energy and the environment.
Land use concerns
Land use concerns sometimes find their way into dialogues about the net impact that solar energy has on the environment. People raise concerns about the impact that large utility-scale solar facilities can have on habitat loss and land degradation.
These concerns are valid. However, it is relatively easy to solve the problem. Utility-scale solar farms don’t need to be placed in areas where land degradation or habitat loss is a concern.
Instead, solar systems are often installed in locations with low-quality land. This includes brownfields, abandoned mining land, or existing transportation corridors.
Energy “payback” time for solar panels
In the previous section, we took a look at how solar panels generate greenhouse gas emissions while being manufactured. This may cause you to think that solar panels are actually not any better for the environment than traditional electricity.
However, this is a common misconception about solar energy and the environment. It only takes about three years of operation for a solar panel to make up for the greenhouse gasses emitted during its manufacturing process. In other words, you can “payback” your greenhouse gas debt in three short years after installing a solar panel.
Now consider the fact that solar panels often lost 25 years or longer. Every year beyond those first three is a year that you will release much fewer greenhouse gasses into the environment than you would have if you were using traditional sources of power.
Impact of fuel-generated electricity on the environment
About 32% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are caused by electricity generation and associated activities. Each of the following aspects of the traditional electrical system can harm the environment with greenhouse gas emissions:
- Emissions of greenhouse gasses and other air pollutants when fuels are burned
- Use of scarce water resources
- Discharge of pollutions into bodies of waters
- The creation of solid, hazardous waste
- The impact on plants, animals, and ecosystems caused by pollutants released through electricity generation
It is important to consider all of these factors while assessing exactly how good solar systems are for the environment.
There are absolutely some ways that solar systems negatively impact the environment. However, these pale in comparison to the many ways in which fuel-generated electricity negatively impacts the environment.
Neither option is 100% perfect. But solar systems are a much healthier option for the environment than the alternative.
Impact of solar energy on human health
Solar energy also has the potential to significantly impact human health for the better. That is because solar systems hardly emit any harmful chemicals into the air and water, which is a big difference from fuel-generated electricity and associated activities.
For example, a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that widespread solar adoption would reduce the amount of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particular matter emissions in the air.
These particles are associated with a wide variety of problems in humans, including chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular problems, and respiratory issues.
The bottom line: How good is solar energy for the environment?
Making the decision to switch your home to a solar-powered one is one of the best things that you can do to protect the environment. You will immediately reduce your home’s carbon footprint, emitting about 3,000 fewer pounds of C02 into the air per year for every kilowatt you install.
Sure, solar panels are made with materials that include toxic chemicals. And the manufacturing of solar panels also released various greenhouse gasses into the air. But problems like these don’t look like problems at all when compared to the massive environmental impact that fuel-generated electricity has.
Ultimately, if your goal is to protect the environment, swapping to solar energy is magnitudes better for that than using traditional sources of power.