December 20, 2017 Solar Energy Written by Sara Slavikova
Health and environmental benefits of solar energy
Sunlight is free, infinite, and easily

accessible, making it a perfect source for generating energy—particularly when compared to fossil fuels, which need to be mined, extracted, and transported, leaving behind a trail of pollution and environmental degradation.

For homeowners and commercial business owners, switching to solar energy provides a clean, affordable, and sustainable way to cover electricity requirements. One of the main reasons most people decide to go with solar are financial advantages such as lower utility bills and increased home value.

But at the same time, as the name “clean energy” suggests, there are also important health and environmental benefits of solar energy that you may not have even taken into account before. Continue reading to learn more about them.

 

Why is solar energy good for the environment?

 

1. It prevents air pollution

Each year, the energy sector emits tons of gases into the atmosphere, and it should come as no surprise that a very high portion of them are the key air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter. Most of these emissions happen when fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity, but they also occur during the refining processes and transportation.

The amount of pollutants in the air steadily increases every year. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China and the United States alone accounted for one-third of nitrous oxide emissions globally in 2015. This is definitely not good news for our ecosystems, which are affected by acid deposition of excess nitrogen and sulphur compounds.

Some of the adverse impacts of air pollution on ecosystems are:

    • Decline of biodiversity

    • Poorer health of forests due to the acid rain

Air pollution harms all living organisms on earth in some way. Luckily, thanks to improving technological advancements, we can cover our energy needs from far less polluting sources. Solar energy is perfectly capable of producing electricity with almost zero emissions involved in the process.

Some emissions that are attributed to the solar industry occur during other stages of the solar life cycle like the manufacture or transportation of fuel and raw materials. But new initiatives to minimize these emissions are appearing with the growing popularity of solar technology, because it demands the creation of stricter regulations for maintaining the low environmental footprint of the industry.

air pollution

Air pollution from combustion of fossil fuels

By increasing the share of solar power in the total energy generation, high amounts of air pollutants can be avoided. To illustrate the impact, it is estimated that adding another 100 GW of solar capacity in the United States would prevent emissions of at least 70,000 tons of nitrous oxide and 126,000 tons of sulphur dioxide each year [1]. This would greatly benefit the diversity of our ecosystems but also ensure the health of our crops and freshwater resources.
 

2. It helps mitigate climate change

Generating electricity with solar panels does not produce any greenhouse gasses. Some greenhouse gases are emitted during the manufacture and installation of a solar system, but this amount is still at least ten times lower than emissions of a standard coal-fueled power plant [2]. Some sources even mention that improvements in efficiency of solar technology will result in further decreases of the overall amount of emissions [3]. This is in strong contrast with fossil fuels, which are currently responsible for releasing 75 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions globally [4].

Even though carbon dioxide is naturally present in the atmosphere, our energy sector has been altering its natural concentrations since the Industrial Revolution to the point that our planet cannot sustain this increased level without consequences such as global warming.

Solar power has a great potential for mitigating the impact of the energy sector on climate change. A research study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) indicates that replacing coal power plants with 100 GW of solar power could eliminate over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year [1]. Even now, the 20 GW of solar installations operating in the United States offset 17 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year [5].

Additionally, an interesting discovery recently suggested that solar panels in cities might have a cooling effect of up to two degrees on the surrounding area [6]. This happens because buildings with solar panels capture and convert solar energy into electricity, while buildings without solar panels absorb some of the incoming radiation from the sun, converting it into heat. Solar panels on rooftops could, according to this observation, affect city climates by keeping the urban heat island effect at a minimum during summer heat waves.
 

3. It leaves water resources intact

Most power plants need large amounts of water to produce steam to spin turbines and cool down the system afterward. The amount of water used in the process cannot be disregarded, as it makes up almost half of all freshwater withdrawals in the United States—accounting for billions of gallons every day [7].

Solar photovoltaic cells do not need water to generate electricity. Given how scarce a resource water is and how many countries are battling severe cases of drought every year, this is one of the most important environmental benefits of solar power.

Intact water ecosystems

Healthy lake ecosystem

Besides compromising our clean drinking water supply, the energy industry also contributes to severe pollution. An analysis done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that 72 percent of heavy metal water contamination comes from coal power plants [8]. This makes them the number one source of water pollution in the United States.

Additional pollution occurs when power plants pump used water back into natural water bodies. This water is often much warmer than normal and causes health problems to many aquatic animals such as fish and amphibians, who are unable to sustain excessive temperature changes.

The mining industry, especially coal, also plays a significant role in water quality degradation. Mining often exposes rocks with heavy metal content or sulphur minerals. When rainwater reacts with them, it carries them off to soils, lakes, and rivers. Local ecosystems and agricultural lands then become toxic to plants, animals, and even humans [9].

The manufacturing process of solar panels and their maintenance does require some water, but it is just a fraction of what is required by other energy sources.

For example, a coal power plant needs 3,500 times more water to produce one megawatt-hour of electricity compared with a photovoltaic system. Similarly, a nuclear power plant requires 1,500 times more water [10].

Solar farms, therefore, leave local water resources intact and pollution-free. They also do not compete with agriculture, drinking systems, and other vital water requirements.
 

4. It uses fewer resources

Solar energy requires fewer resources in terms of its production and use. In other words, it has a more positive life cycle assessment.

More specifically, compared with coal electricity, solar electricity [11]:

    • Consumes only 11 to 14 percent of water

    • Uses 20 percent of land

    • Is 95 percent less toxic

    • Decreases the chance of acid rain by 92 to 97 percent

    • Is likely to contribute by only 2 to 3 percent to marine eutrophication

Even though solar technology is made of resources that have to be mined and processed, 96 percent of the material contained in silicon solar panels is recyclable. This includes important resources such as aluminum, glass, and even rare or precious metals like silver, gallium, indium, and germanium.

Additionally, up to 90 percent of the key materials in photovoltaic solar cells (silicon and cadmium telluride) can be reused to produce new solar cells right away.

This makes the solar industry much more environmentally friendly compared to fossil fuels, especially since fossil fuels can only be used once. For example, oil companies may extract petroleum 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year over several years, but once extracted and used, there is no way to reuse this finite resource. Solar panels, on the other hand, keep producing energy for over 30 years and then can be recycled to continue producing energy in the new form once again.
 

Why is solar energy good for our health?

 


“Energy is a global health issue.”

Smith et al.


 

1. Breathing cleaner air

In 2012, more than one in every nine deaths globally could be attributed to air pollution [12]. Solar power and other clean sources of energy could be the best solution to the air pollution crisis, which kills millions of people every year.

solar energy against nuclear

Solar energy versus nuclear power plant

According to the latest study, the rise in popularity of solar and wind energy has prevented the unnecessary deaths related to air pollution of around 1,000 American citizens each year throughout the last decade [3].

It is well-known fact that breathing poor quality air is bad for human health and leads to a myriad of health problems. Some of the most common problems are:

    • Asthma and allergies

    • Bronchitis

    • Pneumonia

    • Anxiety

    • Headaches

    • Arrhythmia and heart attacks

    • Cancer

The solar industry emits just a fraction of gases compared to traditional fossil fuels. If more households and businesses relied on solar energy, many of these serious health problems could be avoided.

For example, adding 100 GW of solar energy to homes in the United States has the potential to reduce, on average, 437 mortality cases, 717 cases of heart attacks, and 300 respiratory diseases every year [1].
 

2. Counteracting the summer heat

As discussed earlier, solar panels can lower the temperature during summer heat waves in cities [6].

This effect is stronger in big cities away from the coast because they can become very hot in the summer months without the cooling effect of the sea breeze. Solar panels in cities provide clean energy for air conditioning but also prevent a rising number of premature deaths related to extreme heat.
 

3. Living in a less polluted environment

Every aspect of our lives is affected by the pollution originating from our dependency on fossil fuels. Oil spills, acid drainage from mines, poisoned water due to nearby power plants, the destruction of forests, the mass deaths of aquatic organisms—these are just a few examples that make daily news. And after all, one famous product of fossil fuels slowly becomes a toxic part of the global food chain and water supply: plastic.

healthy environment

Clean and healthy lifestyle

It is hard to say how many people are experiencing health problems due to fossil fuel pollution all over the world, but the scale of the problem is so large that it exceeds other major health risk factors such as malnutrition.

Replacing fossil fuels with the solar alternative could increase the safety of the environment we need for living, eating, and raising our children. Even though some criticism against the cleanliness of the solar industry appears from time to time, the impact of solar energy on our health is far lower than of any fossil fuel [14].
 

The environmental impact of solar energy

Having said all this, not all solar panels provide the same environmental benefits. Their environmental impact across their life cycle depends on how they are produced, as well as how long they can be used for.

For example, some studies have found that mainstream Chinese-made silicon solar panels have more than twice the carbon footprint than panels made in Europe and take up to 30 percent longer to offset the energy used to make them—this is without taking into account the impact of transport costs [15].

Solar energy has clear environmental benefits, but one aspect that definitely can be improved is the end-of-life management of solar panels, specifically their recycling [16]. Given that solar energy is a relatively recent technological development that is only now being deployed in significant numbers, there are not enough locations to recycle old solar panels and it is not economically attractive yet.

The recycling of solar panels needs adequate support. This should not be considered an unsurmountable problem: Recycling technologies can be developed and commercialized when there is significant demand. For instance, this was the case with recycling PET bottles, which only became possible in the 1990s.

 


References

[1] https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy07osti/41998.pdf
[2] https://goo.gl/SdNqTz
[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/nenergy2017134.epdf
[4] http://cdiac.ess-dive.lbl.gov/trends/emis/tre_glob_2014.html
[5] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160518165257.htm
[6] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283975603_Impact_of_solar_panels_on_global_climate
[7] https://goo.gl/UjDNQu
[8] https://content.sierraclub.org/coal/disposal-plant-water-pollution
[9] https://www.epa.gov/nps/abandoned-mine-drainage
[10] https://www.rivernetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/BurningOurRivers_0.pdf
[11] https://goo.gl/NjP15d
[12] https://goo.gl/gZAA5B
[13] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2014.00014/full
[14] http://ehsdiv.sph.berkeley.edu/krsmith/publications/2013/2013_ARPH_energy.pdf
[15] https://goo.gl/pXIVfH
[16] https://greentumble.com/the-environmental-footprint-of-the-solar-industry/