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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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