Environmental Impact of Using Solar Energy

Environmental Impact of Using Solar Energy

Solar Energy is a form of renewable energy. The sun’s heat produces it. It is the most renewable source of energy as it does not use any fuel and is not polluting. It is also said to be the most sustainable form of energy as it is not impacted by any kind of external factors.

Each minute, sunlight heats the earth by 1,000 degrees Celsius. During the day, when sunlight is strong, solar panels could generate around 75 watts of energy per square meter. At night when the sun is not shining, the solar panels generate about 60 watts of energy per square meter. A single panel of 2.6 kilowatts generating capacity would allow each family to have a maximum of 3 kilowatt of power, which is about one to two T.V. sets or three light bulbs.

The sun is an endless source of energy and will continue to shine for another 7 to 8 billion years. Its natural heat and light can be tapped to produce solar energy, which will not only save our electricity bills but will also benefit our planet.

As the environmental crisis has become a global concern, it is widely suggested that humankind develop technology to utilise the true potential of renewable sources while judiciously using the non-renewable ones. Since we are facing climate change, rising sea levels, land degradation, all forms of pollution, it is of utmost importance that we shift from over-consumption to careful use of resources and minimise resource wastage.

Many people are opting for solar energy systems, which are often installed on the roof. They can be used to produce clean and green electricity by using the sun’s heat. Many solar energy farms are also coming up with companies enthusiastically investing in this future source of energy.

However, there are always two sides to a coin. While solar energy is fast becoming the leading form of renewable energy to meet our electricity needs as it does not cause any pollution and is eco-friendly, it also takes a toll on environmental health due to its infrastructural needs, manufacturing process of solar panels, its transportation and finally installation.

In this article, let’s look at the major positive and negative environmental impacts of using solar energy.

Benefits of Using Solar Energy

Benefits of Using Solar Energy

Reduces Dependence on the National Grid

Solar energy systems reduce a household’s dependence on the national electricity grid. This is beneficial for the environment as many countries use fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity. Solar energy systems can’t work when it is dark if there are no solar batteries installed. So households can depend on conventional energy then, but this little measure saves a lot of electricity produced from non-renewable sources.

No Carbon Footprint

As solar energy uses the sun’s heat to produce electricity, using this renewable energy source means we are not generating any carbon emissions and not leaving behind any carbon footprint. Opting for solar energy is an environmentally conscious decision that will ultimately benefit the planet and also humankind. It is estimated that solar energy can reduce a household’s carbon footprint by 80%.

Also, when fossil fuels are burnt to produce electricity, toxic fumes and harmful gases like carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere. These are detrimental to human health as numerous respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and even cancers are caused due to air pollution. Hence, shifting to solar energy is a total win-win situation for us.

It is Renewable and Everlasting

Sun has been here to stay for a long time, so solar energy is a perennial source with enormous potential. It can be used without being exhausted, while fossil fuels will run out someday. The quicker we make the transition to renewable sources, the better it will be for us. If you rely on solar power, you are one less burden on the earth, which will make a much bigger impact than you can imagine.

Require Little to no Maintenance

The production process might be a little complicated, but the solar plants do not require regular maintenance or replacement once installed. They work for 50 years while conventional heating systems need regular care and produce enormous electronic waste, which is harmful to the environment.

No Water Wastage

Water is one of the sources which is crucial for the sustenance of life on earth. One of the main advantages of using solar energy is that it doesn’t require water, unlike traditional energy or electricity produced from coal. Water is used for running turbines, cooling generators and is an inherent component to produce electricity at the power plants. Whereas solar panels only rely on rainwater to wash them off when they are dusty.

Helps to Slow Climate Change

Helps to slow climate change

As solar energy is a sustainable form of energy, it doesn’t cause global warming, the primary cause of sudden and frequent natural disasters like floods, droughts, cyclones and tsunamis. Hence, the usage of solar power can slow down and even reverse the impact of climate change. As the present generation, we have to take responsible action to leave a healthier planet for the generations to come.

Environmental Impact of Mass Solar Construction

Just the massive scale of construction involved in solar energy generation can cause environmental damage to a region. The issues involved can range from the soil, air, water and vegetation alteration, land erosion and damage to human health. Solar panels can be placed on the surface or in the subsurface to collect the sun’s energy. For the surface, materials like fly ash, silica sand and gravel are used, while for the subsurface, materials like clay, concrete and rock dust are used.

Transport is another issue that arises due to the construction of these solar power plants. These large solar panel arrays are transported by road and have to undergo great stress to protect them from the harsher conditions of the traffic.

Besides, the installation process itself is problematic. Many solar panels have to be placed in small geographical areas, so their installation does not immediately affect the local ecology. However, the impact will be felt on the local flora and fauna as the irradiation caused by the solar panels can wipe out the habitat of certain species.

Restoring the natural ecology of the region can be a major issue. The solar panels usually have multiple layers, which limit their penetration into the ground. While the advantage of solar panels is that they are going to be solar-powered, this aspect has led to many calls for regulating solar panel projects. The manufacturer also must be careful in choosing the locations and ensuring that the panels are placed in the right areas in order to protect the local ecosystems.

Even after the installation, the solar panel projects have to be monitored to ensure that the land is not overexploited for the solar panels. It is important that they do not wipe out the existing wildlife or affect the flora and fauna.

Negative Environmental Impact of Solar Energy Systems

Negative Impact of Solar Energy Systems

Solar energy systems have been questioned as they lead to land degradation, habitat destruction, water wastage during their installation and also the use of dangerous substances in manufacturing. However, the latter is a factor that varies according to the technology used-photovoltaic solar cells or concentrating thermal plants.

Also, the environmental impact depends on the size of the solar energy system – If it serves the needs of a household or a city or an enterprise. Below are some of the negative consequences of using solar energy.

Land Degradation and Habitat Destruction

Solar farms spread over many hectares of land can cause land degradation and habitat loss. It might also cause deforestation. Large utility P.V. solar plants require around 5 to 10 acres of land per megawatt whereas CSP plants need 5 to 17 acres per megawatt. The total area need depends on the topography as well as the sunlight the region receives.

Secondly, land on which solar plants are installed cannot be shared for agricultural production. Hence, solar plants should not be installed in a fertile area but rather in remote locations like brownfields, mining areas, or uncultivable wastelands. On the other hand, solar P.V. arrays installed in roofs of homes do not take up much space.

Large solar plants also cause soil degradation and deforestation. It disturbs the ecosystem of a region by hampering the region’s ecology. They may also be detrimental to the flora and fauna if established near endangered forests. Also, a beam of concentrated sunlight created by a solar power tower could kill birds and insects if they happen to pass through it.

Water wastage during manufacture and installation

Solar P.V. Cells do not require water for functioning but water is needed to make solar P.V. components. Concentrating solar thermal plants or CSP’s need water for cooling them just like the thermal electric plants. Water needs depend on the size of the solar plant, its location and the kind of inbuilt cooling system used.

CSP plants use wet-recirculating technology and also once-through cooling technology. The former utilises around 650 gallons of water per megawatt of electricity produced. The latter uses more water but in total, the water consumption is less as water does not get evaporated. It is estimated that dry-cooling technology can reduce water wastage by 90% but it is not very effective in regions with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many places in the U.S., have a great potential to tap solar energy but it is not possible due to the dry climate and water scarcity. A few solar power systems use toxic chemicals to transfer heat and if these materials are leaked it could cause great harm to the environment. However, the U.S. has put environmental regulations in place to check such incidents.

Use of Heavy metals

Heavy metals Solar Energy

Many environmentalists are concerned regarding the use of Cadium Telluride for making thin-film panels. They have argued that it is a hazardous metal, however, coal and oil also contain dangerous metals which are released into the atmosphere when they are burnt. It is known that coal plants generate more toxic fumes and are 300 times more polluting than solar power plants.

Recycling Solar Power Plants- Why is it Important?

Recycling Solar Power Plants

While recycling solar power plants is not a primary concern now, it will become one in the future. Presently we don’t have the resources and also there are not enough non-operational solar plants to make recycling economically attractive. However, since solar panels are made of precious metals like silver, tellurium and indium, recycling is important, not only to reduce the generation of metal waste but also to reuse these rare metals which are already a scarce resource. As resource scarcity is a sure future possibility we have to save up whatever we can.

There is a lack of awareness about the process of manufacture of solar plants along with the absence of pressure to promote the recycling of the components which hinders making solar energy use truly sustainable.

What can we do about it?

While the production and installation of solar power plants is not environmentally -friendly, still they are said to be perfect for meeting individual energy needs. As more people opt for installing solar panels at their home roofs, it would drive research and development to introduce better and efficient technologies which would do away with some of its present issues. Hence, we should invest in solar plants if possible.

Best Solar Panel Locations

There are certain best locations where solar energy installations can be done in a holistic manner in order to ensure minimal impact on the natural habitat of a region.

1. Areas that are used for growing crops like maise, coffee and sugarcane

2. Open Forests Areas

3. Areas with water resources such as the Arabian Sea and the plains of India.

4. Coastal areas

5. Coastal bays

6. Forests and woodlands

7. Ponds and lakes

8. Dry or desert conditions

9. Large river valleys

10. Areas with low altitudes such as mountains

11. South facing slopes

To make solar energy systems more efficient, there is a need to develop more efficient batteries and also those which can be used in the dark. Secondly, there should be increased investment in floating solar panels. Stakeholders and companies should focus their research on making the solar plants’ production process cleaner. New alternatives should be found instead of water, to be used in cooling systems.