Given the looming threat of global warming, the large-scale implementation of solar energy appears to impede and even tackle the issue. But how exactly does solar energy help the environment and climate change? To know that, we must first look at how solar panels work.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
A solar panel is made up of numerous solar cells. When photons (sunlight) strike these solar cells, they knock out electrons from the atoms of these cells. Conductors attached to the negative and positive terminals of the cell form a complete electrical circuit.
The electrons that were knocked out of the cell atoms begin to flow through this circuit; this flow of electrons is essentially what current is. The number of solar cells in a panel varies according to the size and capacity of the panel; a 250-watt panel has around 72 solar cells.
Multiple solar panels can be wired together in a series or parallel formation to form an array of solar panels. Naturally, the higher the number of solar panels you have in your system, the more energy you can expect to generate.
How Does Solar Energy Help Climate Change?
Climate change is basically the occurrence of abnormal climate patterns across the world, including unusually cold winters and hot summers. Additionally, an increase in the frequency of forest fires and the melting of polar icecaps also fall under the umbrella of climate change. Many factors have contributed to bringing us to this point.
Among these factors, a prominent one includes the energy sector. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the energy sector is responsible for some of the largest greenhouse gas contributions in the US, accounting for 28% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions. This is because a large amount of power, even today, is being generated using traditional fossil fuel-powered power plants.
These power plants operate by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas and using the released heat to convert water into steam, which is used to rotate the turbines, thereby generating electricity. The problem with this process is that the exhaust gases obtained from fossil fuel combustion contain a large amount of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas, which is being released into the atmosphere.
When greenhouse gasses enter the atmosphere, they trap the heat released by the earth during the night, which helps keep the atmosphere warm and livable. However, the excessive amounts of these gasses have led to the environment heating beyond a sustainable temperature, birthing a chain of abnormal climatic trends. The worst part about the situation is that greenhouse gasses can survive in the atmosphere for up to 1000 years.
The first step in the remediation of this problem is to transition from conventional power generation methods to renewable methods, and this is where solar energy comes into play. However, in 2020, the US released around 1.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Furthermore, approximately 60.6% of the US’s net power output was generated through fossil fuels. This indicates that the transition, although is underway, is not progressing at a fast enough rate.
To answer the question: How does solar energy help climate change? If you look back at how solar panels work to give you electricity, you will notice that nowhere in the entire process are fossil fuels being used. This means that solar panels give you completely emission-free energy. The primary goal should be to implement solar energy on a large enough scale so that it can accommodate the majority of the residential and commercial energy needs.
This will substantially lower people’s dependency on the fossil fuel-based energy supplied by the national grid. With lower demand, the operational time of traditional power plants will be reduced, meaning lower fossil fuel combustion and hence lower emissions. To put things into perspective, the solar capacity deployed in the United States is estimated to offset up to 16.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
The planet has the ability to heal itself and naturally regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, the rate of carbon dioxide emissions far exceeds the rate at which the earth can absorb it. Reducing emissions by going solar will help mitigate this imbalance, thereby allowing the planet to, once again, take control of the carbon content in the atmosphere. This eventually will allow the planet to heal, thereby restoring the natural order of climate.
How Does Solar Energy Help the Environment?
Solar Energy Reduces Water Pollution
According to the natural resource defense council, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 72% of the water pollution in the US. Other conventional power plants such as nuclear, gas-fired, and oil-fired power plants also produce large amounts of wastewater. During the operation of the conventional power plants, enormous amounts of heat is generated.
In order to prevent the components of the plant from overheating and exploding, large quantities of water is circulated around the components in order to cool them down. Additionally, the power generation procedure of these plants also depends on converting water into steam. The wastewater from these plants is dumped into the natural water bodies such as rivers and streams.
The water being dumped is not only at a higher temperature, but it also contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. In addition, nuclear power plants release radioactive waste, which pollutes the groundwater supplies. This has resulted in damaging aquatic life, environmental degradation, cancer, and neurological disorders.
Considering how solar panels work, it is no wonder that solar energy reduces water pollution. Solar energy systems such as solar panels do not require any water to produce power. As such, going solar would have no negative impact on the local water resources. In addition, having our energy needs met by solar energy will also help reduce water pollution caused by the traditional power plants by reducing their required running time.
Another overlooked benefit of going solar is that the people in charge of power generating facilities will no longer have to partake in endless quarrels with locals over the distribution of water resources which is an ongoing problem with traditional power plants.
Although one could argue that quite a bit of water is wasted in the cleaning of solar panels, the amount of water used for this purpose pales in comparison to the amount used by traditional power plants. In addition, the runoff water from the cleaning of solar panels is not toxic and can be easily purified and reused.
Furthermore, innovative developments in the cleaning of solar panels have led to the invention of more efficient cleaning methods that require little to no water. With a bit more testing, the methods should soon be adopted by professional cleaning services. Having said that, the amount of water used for the cleaning of solar panels is gradually becoming minimized. This, coupled with the other factors mentioned above, make it clear how solar energy reduces water pollution.
Solar Energy Reduces Air Pollution
Traditional power plants produce an enormous amount of waste which is released into the air. These pollutants include lead particles, arsenic, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and mercury. These substances are very toxic and have proven severely detrimental for the environment and for the people. For instance, hydrocarbons and arsenic are carcinogens, carbon monoxide leads to oxygen deprivation for the human body, and mercury can lead to seizures and even death in extreme cases.
In fact, prolonged exposure to these substances has been responsible for various diseases, including lung cancer, asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), allergies, pneumonia, and headaches are many other health concerns.
Additionally, acidic gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also released by these plants, which directly lead to acid rain. This acidifies crop fields and water bodies such as rivers. Both aquatic life and crops are quite sensitive to PH changes and are detrimentally harmed by acid rain.
Luckily, solar panels work without producing any emissions or air pollutants as they do not require the combustion of fossil fuels. Owing to this, solar energy is paving the way for mitigating the dire situation of air pollution.
In New York, for example, the average home consumes 7,092 kWh of electricity each year. By opting to go solar, the homeowner will avoid the same amount of emissions that would result from burning 5,200 pounds of coal per year. That’s just from one house! Consider the impact of the entire state of New York switching to solar energy; the result would be a significant reduction in urban air pollution.
Solar Energy Helps Prevent Land Degradation
Mining for coal as well as drilling for oil and gas can severely devastate the operation site. A study shows that because of mining activities and wastes, coal mining sites are prone to hazardous element contamination, particularly Chromium, Nickel, Copper, Zinc, Cadmium, and lead. These elements make the land unproductive for hundreds of years. According to research, Coal mining in Santa Catarina has degraded 6500 hectares of land, making it completely unproductive.
Furthermore, hydraulic cracking – a process used to extract oil and gas from the seabed – has proved to be responsible for causing earthquakes. Even worse is the fact that the effects of oil and gas extraction can persist in the fault lines even after the extraction process ceases.
Switching to solar will substantially lower the demand for fossil fuels which will directly impede coal mining and oil and gas extraction resulting in lower land and seabed degradation. This means that there will be more productive land left for farmers and afforestation projects that can further help counter climate change.
While arguments have been made that hazardous materials are also used in the manufacturing of solar panels, it is important to remember that these materials are not disposed of in landfill sites or water bodies. Instead, strict government protocols require manufacturers to recycle those materials.
Statistics to show how Solar Panels Help the Environment.
Numerous benefits of solar energy have been described above. Here are a few statistics to further reinforce the points stated above:
- Meeting the solar deployment goals of the US—14% of US energy demand provided by solar by 2030 and 27% by 2050—could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% by 2050, saving $238–$252 billion.
- Accomplishing the above-mentioned solar deployment targets could cut the net power-sector emissions of SO2 by 9%, PM2.5 by 8%, and NOx by 11% by 2050.
- Reduced future health and environmental consequences might result in $167 billion in savings. This will also help prevent 25,000–59,000 premature deaths due to lower air, water, and land pollution.
- Water savings from meeting the deployment target can amount to a net savings of 9% of total power-sector consumption and 4% of total power-sector withdrawals, which is an immensely important benefit for rain-deprived states where substantial solar will be installed.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Solar Energy?
According to the estimates of The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 20 years of solar energy can help cut down 320,000 pounds of carbon emissions. It would not only assist the environment in healing itself, but it will also reduce America’s reliance on foreign sources and aid in tackling global warming. Many other benefits are stated above!
How Does Solar Energy Reduce Greenhouse Gases?
The burning of fossil fuels leads to greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in rising global temperatures and climate change. By going solar, you will help minimize the demand for fossil fuels, thereby restricting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing your carbon footprint.
How Does Solar and Wind Energy Help the Environment?
Solar and winds energy help reduce the detrimental gaseous, liquid, and solid waste produced by traditional power plants by lowering the demand for their energy output and hence reducing their operational time.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
Solar panels work by harnessing energy from the photons in the sunlight to free electrons from the atoms of the solar cells. The free electrons are driven through a circuit that creates electricity.
What Are the Disadvantages of Solar Energy?
The main disadvantages of solar energy are that solar PV systems and solar energy storage systems are expensive. Additionally, solar energy systems can take up quite a bit of space.
The climate change condition has been escalating faster than ever. The shift towards solar energy is perhaps the most viable and quick solution that we can use to offset this worsening climate condition. If solar energy is deployed on a large enough scale, its benefits for the environment and society as a whole will help curtail climate change.
The team at Firefly Solar are ready to answer your questions and give you a no-obligation price quote. Feel free to call us at 864-252-7858 or book a consultation online. And we’ll get in touch within 24 hours.