The Environmental Benefits of Solar Power

Solar power has the potential to save home owners thousands over the life of a residential solar power system. But far greater than the financial benefits of solar power are the environmental benefits. With solar power, your home uses renewable energy that is clean and has little to no impact on the environment.

The emissions, water, and land use saved by just a single home using solar power are greater than you might think. For some homes, using solar power as a source of electricity is on the same scale as planting nearly 2,500 trees.

Read on to learn why solar is a superior environmental choice, how damaging traditional power is to the environment, and why solar power benefits the environment.

What’s Wrong with Traditional Power?

Coal produced electricity generates tons of carbon dioxide, also known as CO2. It is a greenhouse gas that is known to build up and warm the climate. Global warming leads to changes around the world in the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans.

Global warming causes ice to melt, sea levels to rise, and increased precipitation. This translates into declining animal populations, movement of habitats to cooler areas, and stronger weather impacts including hurricanes, floods, and droughts.

Coal Fired Electricity is a Major CO2 Source

Carbon dioxide is most often created in the combustion of fossil fuels including coal, natural gas, and oil. And while we might think of cars or manufacturing plants as the major environmental offenders, their impact is lower than that of a light switch.

The single largest source of CO2 emissions is the generation of electricity. Electricity that powers homes, businesses, and industry accounts for 37% of United States CO2 emissions. That’s greater than the 31% of CO2 emissions generated by transportation and the 15% of CO2 emissions emitted by industry processes.

Consider this: if you have a residential solar power system and an electric car powered by your home, you could practically wipe out nearly 70% of your environmental impact, reducing both your electricity emissions and transportation emissions.

Solar Power is a Renewable Energy Source

Renewable energy comes from sources that are practically inexhaustible. Sources of renewable energy include solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and water. With renewable energy sources, we don’t have to worry about someday running out of wind, or losing the sun. These sources of energy aren’t going away — and if we lose the sun, we’ll have bigger problems to worry about than electricity.

Using renewable energy such as solar power, your electricity generation takes nothing away from the environment. This is in direct contrast to fossil fuels, which are limited and cause damage to the environment when consumed. The sun will continue to shine whether you use it for solar power or not — and that makes this renewable energy source completely different from fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources.

The Environmental Potential of Solar Power

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that by 2030, with an installed capacity of 100 GW of solar power, the United States could avoid 100,995,293 CO2 emissions by replacing natural gas and coal with solar power.

This reduction of reduced emissions directly impacts health. At that same level of 100 GW of installed solar capacity, 437 mortality cases would be reduced. Heart attacks would be reduced by 717, and 7,945 emergency room visits for lower respiratory systems would be avoided. Ultimately, we’d avoid 50,755 work loss days and 348,787 minor restricted activity days.

Why Solar Power Benefits the Environment

Understanding how solar power benefits the environment is simple: the sun provides an inexhaustible supply of energy. Solar power captures this energy with practically no impact on the environment. This means that solar power is far easier on carbon emissions, water, land use, and health impacts than the typical electricity generated by coal or natural gas in fossil fuel energy plants.

Of course, as with any manufacturing process, there are negative impacts on the environment associated with solar power. Solar power impacts the environment by using land, water, and hazardous materials. However, these impacts are minimal for solar power, especially when compared to the environmental impact of fossil fuel energy.

This is in direct contrast to traditionally produced electricity. The Energy Research Center of the Netherlands indicates that solar electricity contributes 96% to 98% less greenhouse gases than electricity generated from coal.

Solar power is also easy on water and land use and other environmental impacts. Compared with coal electricity, solar electricity uses 86% to 89% less water. It also uses 80% less land. Solar power is 95% lower in toxicity to humans, causes 92% to 97% less acid rain, and 97% to 98% less marine eutrophication, the cause of algal blooms.

How Residential Solar Power Makes an Environmental Difference

When we talk about the major environmental benefits of solar power, we’re often considering the large scale. There’s no question that a 20 MW solar farm replacing a coal burning power plant will make a difference. But even on the smaller residential scale, your solar power can have a serious impact.

With a typical 4 kW residential solar power system, you can expect to offset nearly 200,000 pounds of CO2 over 25 years. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. That level of offset emissions is equal to planting about 2,316 trees. It’s also equal to avoiding driving 208,166. Larger residential solar power systems can save even more, offsetting 178 tons of carbon dioxide over a period of 30 years. That’s equal to conserving 6.7 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water, planting 10 football fields of trees, and not driving 390,300 miles.

As you generate solar power for your home, you’re not just creating sustainable energy. Using solar power, you’re reducing your electricity demand on the grid. That means the grid doesn’t have to work as hard to meet electricity needs, reducing brownouts or blackouts, not to mention reducing your community’s dependence on fossil fuels for electricity.

Also, keep in mind that your solar power environmental savings happens whether you use all of your solar power or not. Assuming you’re connected to the grid with net metering, you’ll be able to feed solar energy that you don’t need into the grid. That means your neighbors will be able to use the excess electricity you’ve sent to the grid, allowing you to share clean, renewable energy with your community.

These are the impacts of just a single residential solar power system. That means you can make a huge difference with just your home. And as you adopt solar power for your home, you help support the industry of residential solar power installation, making it more efficient and affordable for other home owners to go solar and have a positive impact on the environment with their homes.

Photo by Flickr user sterlingcollege