We’ve all heard that solar energy is better than fossil fuels, but do you know why and to what extent?
Is Solar Energy Better for the Environment than Fossil Fuels?
To capture the energy needed to power modern human existence, land is cleared, and habitats are destroyed to make way for the extraction of fossil fuels. The sheer amount of infrastructure that is needed to run this industry is daunting. However, when you compile the choices these companies make during their operations, it adds even more destruction to this already long list.
Infrastructures included in fossil fuel production include: the base location, pipelines and other distribution infrastructures, reservoirs, import and export terminals, office spaces and power plants. These new operations require land that once supported thriving ecosystems. An even bigger problem is that these locations can be depleted of the fossil fuels and the operation will find a new location – leaving a depressed ecosystem in its wake.
Besides the physical constructions of the fossil fuel industry, their practices are also wreaking havoc on the environment. Explosions, mine collapses, fires, deforestation, soil removal, irresponsible waste removal practices, landslides and flash floods are just some of the side effects of fossil fuel retrieval. Some may think that these are uncommon problems, but the fact is that these devastating incidents are occurring frequently. In 2016, for offshore drilling alone, there were 82 fires and 19 spills. These numbers do not include the various other methods of obtaining fossil fuels, only offshore drilling.
Waste products from these processes can also destroy habitats through pollution and habitat destruction and fragmentation. Beloved animal populations are facing extinction at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.
Coral reefs are negatively affected by the fossil fuel industry. Polar bears are negatively affected by the fossil fuel industry. Humans are negatively affected by the fossil fuel industry. Every living creature is affected by the fossil fuel industry.
For natural gas alone, 30,000 square kilometers (11,583 square miles) of land is lost to other uses. While solar does use land, it consumes considerably less. In 2015, if all of the land used for natural gas production was instead used for solar energy production, 3 million gigawatt hours could be produced. To summarize, this amount of energy could fulfill 75% of the United States’ electric needs for a year.
Unlike the fossil fuel industry, solar energy does not need to move after the resource has been depleted in that area. By moving locations, the fossil fuel industry continues its path of destruction. Solar panels can be placed in one area for the extent of their lifecycle.
There is a concern with solar that it occupies land that could be utilized in other ways and that it disrupts habitats. However, solar panels can be positioned on land already changed by humans (i.e. parking lots, buildings, nutrient-depleted fields, etc.).
Acquiring the raw materials for the fuel industry can lead to serious water concerns that impact many populations.
Water is taken from the local area where drilling is occurring. The process can take between 1.5 million gallons to 16 million gallons of water. Some of this water can be recycled, but it is costly, and the practice has not been utilized as much as possible. Only 10% of the produced water from drilling is recycled so water is continually taken from the community. And, even with recycling, the water needs to be combined with fresh water. This can be a serious problem for areas that are dealing with water resource strain.
Beyond drilling, fossil fuel power plants also pose a threat to the water system. Extreme amounts of water are taken from natural sources to aid in the cooling process during refining. This water is returned to ecosystems at a higher temperature and with a lower concentration of oxygen – a lethal combination for many species.
Solar figures on water usage can be difficult to ascertain and there is no clear answer. In short, solar PV cells (the kind you would find on a house) require minimal water to manufacture but there is water used for cleaning them. Concentrating solar thermal plants use much more water, but the consumption is still less than that of fossil fuels. Dry-cooling can limit this usage by 90%, but it is more expensive. However, there are technological innovations being developed that can reduce the price. Water is an invaluable resource and solar requires less.
Between carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, the Earth’s air is gravely impacted by energy production. Acid rain, smog, acidic and unlivable ecosystems and the depletion of the ozone layer are all side effects of these harmful chemicals. These emissions are a significant impact to the discussion on climate change.
Some of the measurements used in the energy industry can be confusing. For this next part, think of “carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2/kWh),” as all of the various types of emissions converted into how much they would equal in terms of carbon dioxide, then that number per amount of electricity generated per hour. Basically, a lower number means fewer emissions.
During a PV cell’s lifecycle, between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of CO2/kWh are emitted. For the larger scale CSP systems, between 0.08 and 2.00 pounds of CO2/kWh are generated. Now, compare this to 0.6-2.0 pounds of CO2/kWh for natural gas and 1.4-3.6 pounds of CO2/kWh for coal. Referencing back to the abbreviated list of negative side effects in this section, lower emissions sounds like a much better option than unlivable ecosystems and climate change. Solar provides these lower emission rates.
Mining and drilling produce toxic waste that is difficult to store. There is a looming risk of a spill that can lead to death and destruction. Chemicals used within mines can be carried to valuable bodies of water by free-flowing water. This can pollute ecosystems as well as drinking water. Produced water, pushed from beneath the ground during drilling, can contain harmful substances such as heavy metals and radioactive materials. As this water is brought to the surface, there is a risk of polluting the water table.
Disposing of this waste is difficult and can lead to even more disasters. Storing the toxic water from mining and drilling is difficult. Reservoirs and overflow pits can malfunction and create a wastewater disaster for ecosystems and communities.
Deep well injections pose even more risks. There is seemingly unlimited debate when it comes to this topic. Toxic substances are injected deep into the ground where scientists thought they would be immobile for thousands of years. However, there have been many instances where the infrastructure involved in this practice has malfunctioned and wells began to ooze toxic substances. Deep well injection is supposed to be monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, but many of the reports are haphazardly completed with missing information. It was a surprise to me when I discovered there are over 2 million of these abandoned wells in the United States. As humans who rely on drinkable water and crops, are we comfortable with allowing oil and gas companies to inject toxic substances into the ground when they have miscalculated the outcomes on numerous accounts?
The concern with solar as an energy source has to do with the solar panels’ life cycle. Disposing of the panels can be difficult and not cost-effective for many businesses. However, there have been solutions arising from this. Solar panel recycling is growing in popularity and efficiency. Most components of solar panels can be reused to create new solar panels. This incentivizes companies to recycle because 65%-70% of the materials by mass can be reclaimed.
As solar energy becomes more popular, increasingly cost-effective waste management technologies will be developed. This will also create more jobs in the fields of reusing and recycling solar panels.
Fossil fuel operations can be dangerous and have led to serious injuries and death. In 2016 there were one death and 174 injuries from offshore drilling alone. For coal mining, the facilities totalled 27 fatalities and 4,035 non-fatal injuries in 2017.
Because of the impaired air quality and other hazardous byproducts of mining and drilling, various health problems have also been tied to the fossil fuel industry. Respiratory diseases, cancer, neurological damage, birth defects, kidney disease, learning disabilities, cardiovascular ailments and endocrine diseases are all possible illnesses from exposure to the chemicals used and produced. It is estimated that 800,000 people die prematurely per year just from the global coal industry.
A study was conducted to compare the death rates between different forms of energy production from 1990 to 2013. From this study, it was concluded that solar accounted for 2019 deaths per terawatt-hour of production. Now, compare this to 32.72 for brown coal, 24.62 for coal, 18.43 for oil and 2.821 for gas. Death rates, in this case, accounted for accidents as well as air pollution. To reference the facts stated in the air quality section of this article, solar energy produces significantly fewer emissions which causes less air pollution and fewer respiratory and other illnesses.
Going solar is not going to disrupt your daily routine, but it will change your life. You’ll be amazed when your energy bill decreases, people will ask you about why you have solar panels on your house, and people may even ask in-depth questions about solar energy. The best part about all of this is that because you chose to prioritize the environment (and your energy bill!), you can now share your knowledge with other people. You have the opportunity to make your own impact AND encourage other people to make theirs. This communication grows exponentially. If you tell five people, and they each tell five people, 25 people will start to consider solar energy. To take it a step farther, if those 25 people then tell five people, 125 people will have the information and the chance to save the environment. If you are on this website right now, someone in your life probably told you about solar energy. You can be that person for countless others. It all starts with you.
If you have further questions about the solar industry, please don’t hesitate to contact us!