Solar Resources

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy?

November 30, 2016

Many people have heard about the financial and practical benefits of installing a solar energy panel — with a one-time purchase, solar panels can cover as much as 100% of your electric usage depending on the amount of roof space available, solar access and other factors. For many businesses and homeowners, this is a no-brainer. However, if you’re on the fence about whether to get a solar panel or wondering if it’s really worth the time, effort and investment, you may want to consider the other benefits of solar energy, as well.

Not only is solar energy an incredibly beneficial financial decision for your home or business, but it can also contribute substantially to the wellness of the environment and even to public health as a whole! To help you better understand why solar energy is good for the environment, we’ve detailed the differences between solar and traditional energy, the drawbacks of traditional fossil fuels and why solar panels are better for the environment.

Solar Energy vs. Traditional Energy

Approximately 67 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from fossil fuels — 33 percent from coal, 33 percent from natural gas and another one percent from petroleum oil. When burned, these traditional energy sources can be used to produce electricity. However, they simultaneously produce a substantial amount of greenhouse gasses. These gasses get released into the atmosphere, polluting the air and trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere. The most prominent of these gasses is carbon dioxide.

natural gas vs. solar

Between manufacturing, installation, operation, maintenance and dismantling, natural gas emits between 0.6 and two pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, and coal emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds per kilowatt-hour. Though it may just seem like harmless smoke, these gasses can build up in the atmosphere, causing serious harm to the environment and public health.

Solar energy, on the other hand, uses light collected from the sun to produce electricity. The process typically involves sunlight hitting a solar panel, where the photons of light are converted into electrons, creating electricity. This electricity can then be converted into a form useable within the building, at which point it can be immediately used. This process is quick, direct and produces little to no carbon emissions. Between manufacturing, installation, operation, maintenance and dismantling, solar energy produces a total of 0.07 to 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, a fraction of the amount produced by fossil fuels.

The Drawbacks of Traditional Energy Sources

While traditional energy sources have served the United States well for decades, the environmental and public health problems associated with this energy source have become more prominent in the public eye. Many of these issues are a result of the byproducts of the fossil fuel burning process, known more generally as “greenhouse gasses.” These issues have arisen across the globe, causing several countries to pursue alternative energy production methods in an effort to reduce their greenhouse gas production.

Some of the negative aspects of fossil fuel-based energy include the following:

  • Harmful extraction process: The extraction of fossil fuels from the earth can be devastating for the local environment. Strip mining, drilling and fracking can all have negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Strip mining leaves ecosystems more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, while drilling can unearth toxic minerals, contaminating groundwater.

Fracking for natural gas releases toxic chemicals and minerals into the surrounding area, and can destabilize the fracking area, potentially causing seismic events. Coal mining can also produce toxins like mercury, lead and arsenic, which can do serious harm to workers and local ecosystems if improperly handled.

In addition to these extraction processes, searching for oil can have its own negative effects. Seismic techniques for searching for oil under the ocean floor can do serious harm to fish and marine life, as can exploratory drilling.

These extraction processes can also lead to serious oil spills, which can devastate the surrounding ecosystem. This is best exemplified by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event which still has an effect on the ecosystems of the Gulf and the Louisiana coastline to this day.

transporting oil

  • Dangerous transportation methods: Transporting oil across long distances usually involves ocean tankers or land pipelines, which are both prone to accidents. Errors during travel or failures in maintenance can result in spills or leaks. These can result in catastrophic effects on local environments. These effects are amplified in coastal regions and freshwater environments, where the organisms are more sensitive to changes in the surrounding ecosystem.
  • Water usage and pollution: Water is a resource negatively affected by nearly every stage of the traditional energy production process. This vital resource is used in numerous ways through the traditional electrical production process and is an important part of coal and petroleum processing.

Most traditional power plants use water-cooling systems, and water is used in several aspects throughout the fossil fuel production process, including drilling, refining and transporting. This water usage accounts for a huge amount of United States’ freshwater withdrawals (41 percent of all annual withdrawals), followed by irrigation and drinking water at 37 and 13 percent, respectively.

The first problem with this enormous water usage is the competition it poses with both local ecosystems and other economies. Water usage by energy plants is a major challenge during times of drought or water stress, as many of these plants can’t simply reduce their water intake — and residential areas require energy to continue functioning. This introduces increased stress among both residential locations and agricultural businesses, as both require water to function properly.

However, this massive water usage also stresses local ecosystems to the breaking point. Water reduction can destroy aquatic habitats for fish and insect larvae and can lead to animals dying of thirst.

This large usage also negatively affects water quality. If water is pumped back into its source, it is usually at a much higher temperature, anywhere up to 18° F hotter than normal. This can severely harm aquatic ecosystems, because many organisms can only live within a narrow range of temperatures. Exceeding either extreme can result in a total extinction of the organism’s population within the habitat in question, which can negatively affect food chains within the entire ecosystem.

The water can also be polluted by toxins from the mining, drilling or refining processes, or can be contaminated by acid rain produced by the greenhouse gasses trapped in the atmosphere.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Electricity generation is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 37 percent of United States carbon dioxide emissions. This is closely followed by transportation and industry, which account for 37 and 15 percent of emissions, respectively. 25 percent of all electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, which produce the most carbon per kilowatt-hour.

These greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, are produced when fossil fuels are burned. After production, they are trapped in the atmosphere, accumulating there. These larger particles effectively trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise. These greenhouse gasses, therefore, contribute heavily to the climbing global temperatures and to climate change.

These issues, in turn, contribute to serious environmental and public health issues, including extreme weather events, rising sea levels, habitat changes and diseases.

fossil fuel health issues

  • Public health issues: The burning of fossil fuels releases numerous toxic chemicals and molecules into the air, including nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matters, all of which can cause respiratory health problems. Chronic bronchitis, respiratory dysfunctions like asthma, cardiovascular problems and cancers are all serious public health issues, which can result from air pollution. Any of these can negatively affect public health, contributing to lost workdays, reduced life expectancies and increased mortality rates, especially in highly polluted areas.

Within the United States alone, the total economic impact associated with these health issues is estimated to be between $361.7 and $886.5 billion, or between 2.5 and six percent of the United States’ gross domestic product.

The Benefits of Solar Power

residiential solar emissions

In light of these dismal effects of fossil fuels on the environment, many have turned to renewable, cleaner energy production processes such as solar. The environmental impact of solar panels is impressive — a single, 4-kilowatt residential solar power system can be expected to offset nearly 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over 25 years. This huge offset is equivalent to planting around 2,316 trees, or avoiding driving 208,166 miles.

Larger systems, like those for apartment complexes or business suites, can expect to offset 178 tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years, or the equivalent of planting 10 football fields full of trees.

Some of the benefits of solar power for the environment include the following:

  • Renewable energy: Solar power is most remarkable as a source of unlimited, abundant energy. If it were possible to capture all of the sunlight shining on the Earth for a single hour, there would be enough energy produced to power the entire world for a year! This resource removes nothing from the environment, and requires no complex mining or drilling processes to obtain — all it takes is a few pieces of equipment and an installation team before your building is equipped with its own power source.
  • Cut carbon emissions: Buildings, both commercial and residential, produce about 39 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States, with the average household emitting about 20 metric tons of carbon pollution each year. However, solar electricity contributes 96 to 98 percent less greenhouse gasses than coal generated electricity. By installing a solar power system, a typical two-person household can reduce their carbon emissions by three to four tons annually. As more people install solar panels on their homes, demand for fossil fuels across the country will decrease, cutting carbon emissions substantially.
  • Improve public health: By helping cut carbon emissions and fossil fuel burning, solar energy helps contribute to the improvement of public health. In areas using significant amounts of solar power and other renewable energy sources, cases of chronic bronchitis, respiratory and cardiovascular problems were significantly reduced, resulting in fewer lost workdays, improved life expectancy and reduced mortality rates.
  • Reduced water usage: Unlike coal or nuclear plants, which may draw 20 to 60 gallons of water for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, solar energy requires little to no water to operate. Between manufacturing, installation, implementation and removal, solar energy uses 86 to 89 percent less water than coal-produced electricity. This reduced usage minimizes the amount of water potentially polluted by manufacturing processes.

This is placed in stark contrast to the high number of toxic byproducts leaked into fresh water from the petroleum refining process. By switching to solar, the energy industry would leave more clean water for irrigation and residential use, reducing competition for water, leaving more for the populace and the surrounding ecosystems.

  • Reduced land usage: Coal power plants, natural gas plants and petroleum refineries require huge plots of land to handle their massive production lines. Though these large plots may be necessary to maintain their traditional systems, processing sufficient quantities of fossil fuels to power the local population, these plots still take up a large amount of space.

These spaces could instead by used for other buildings, such as businesses or residences. These plants also tend to pollute the surrounding area with gasses and toxic byproducts, negatively affecting the local environment.

Solar electricity, on the other hand, requires less than 20% of the land needed by traditional plants. Solar panels in residential areas tend to be placed on roofs, taking up no extra space, while commercial solar panels tend to take up less space than the average oil refinery.

  • Long-lasting materials: Solar panels have an exceptionally long lifespan compared to other energy-producing mechanisms, with a warrantied lifespan of around 25 years. Some of the first solar panels from the 1950s are still functioning and producing today! This means a single purchase will last for decades to come.

As of 2015, 13 percent of the United States’ electricity was produced by a renewable energy source. 0.6 percent of the total energy was generated by a solar energy source. As solar panel prices decline and more people invest in solar energy, however, this percentage is slowly on the rise. In combination with other renewable methods, this incredible electricity-producing tool can be used to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, building a better future for the planet, its ecosystems and its people.

Converting to Solar Energy

If you’re convinced that solar energy is the right choice for you and your home or business, you’ve made a choice that will benefit both you and the world around you. However, it can be difficult to find help and support when making the switch, between finding a solar panel provider and hiring someone to install it all.

While the process of switching to solar energy may seem daunting, there is help! Bright Eye Solar LLC consists of experts in the solar panel installation industry, servicing commercial and residential customers across New England and the northeast. We strive to educate our customers on the solar energy products they want to purchase, and will help ensure their building is ready for solar installation. We’ll aid you from start to finish and beyond!

Contact Bright Eye Solar today to learn more and to schedule a free consultation with one of our experts!

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