Climate change has been a point of discussion for years and years now, but it seems to be a particularly hot topic at the moment. From hopeful presidential candidates looking toward 2020 to schoolchildren striking across the globe, climate change has sparked divisive, incendiary discussion. With climate scientists acknowledging the clear negative impact of carbon emissions on our environment, it’s obvious that renewable, sustainable energy sources will be vital in reducing these harmful emissions. With this in mind, solar energy will have a huge role to play as we look to push back against climate change. Let’s see how solar can play a part in this fight and examine some of the common arguments against solar power in an environmental context.
It’s true that solar panels involve a small degree of CO2 emissions in the process of manufacturing, transporting and installing the panels. However, these emissions pale in comparison to the huge damage done to our environment by fossil fuel emissions. Solar panels stop contributing to carbon emissions once they’re installed, producing entirely clean energy from that point on. Gas and coal, on the other hand, continue to contribute massively to global carbon emissions throughout their entire lifespan.
Society & Health
It’s clear that the emissions resulting from fossil fuel use not only damage the environment, but also damage human health. In particular, those who live near fossil fuel power plants will see the worst long-term health effects of this proximity. Often, these plants are located in lower-income areas, disproportionately affecting more disadvantaged members of society.
Not only are fossil fuels damaging in health terms, they’re also not a viable long-term energy solution for our society owing to their dwindling reserves. Oil supplies won’t last forever. In fact, many have forecasted that we have between 40 - 60 years of oil left at our current usage rates. Therefore, a need for alternative energy sources like solar is obvious. The sun, on the other hand, won’t be in short supply any time soon.
Fossil fuels prices are wildly unpredictable, shooting up and down over the years, and can even change significantly over the course of one week. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, having seen the prices jump erratically whenever we stop to buy gas. Contrastingly, the cost of solar has steadily declined over the past decade, thanks to increased investment in R&D, which has led to more cost-efficient solar technology.
The risk factor associated with each type of energy source, fossil fuel or solar, varies wildly. The risk level associated with solar energy is comparatively minor, with potential biodiversity issues being the only real concern. For animals, the surface of a solar panel may look confusingly like water, leading to collisions and even death. Insects have also been noted to show an attraction to solar panels, leading them to lay eggs in an unviable area. These concerns have been taken onboard by solar developers, who are working toward eliminating any threat to biodiversity.
Fossil fuels, on the other hand, come with a huge risk factor, threatening the wellbeing and safety of animals and humans alike. It’s a grim reality that people die extracting these resources from the earth. In mines and quarries, the process of extracting oil and gas takes lives. In addition, fossil fuels contaminate the environment, leading directly to human health issues - everything from respiratory problems to cancer. Oil spills and gas leaks have been seen to have a hugely detrimental effect on our natural world as well.
Common Arguments Against Solar Debunked
#1 - Production Cycle
A common argument involves the emission of carbon dioxide in the process of manufacturing and installing solar panels. When compared to traditional energy sources like coal and gas, these emissions are extremely minimal. In addition, solar panels are a zero-emission energy source after installation, whereas fossil fuels continue to emit CO2 alongside energy throughout their entire lifespan.
#2 - Materials
Another argument against the environmental friendliness of solar involves the materials used to produce the panels. It’s been suggested that solar isn’t a sustainable long-term solution because of the negative impact of the materials used on the environment. However, given the value and rarity of these materials, there are huge incentives to ensure that the materials are properly handled and recycled. This motivates manufacturers to pursue an environmentally-friendly process which keeps these materials in the cycle of creating a renewable energy source.
#3 - Land
It’s also been contested that large solar installations occupy a great deal of land, which is then rendered unviable for the pursuit of agriculture. Of course, this doesn’t apply to the majority of residential and commercial installations which will end up on a rooftop. It is a concern, however, when it comes to solar farms, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. One solution is to prioritise land that cannot be used for agriculture anyway. Research is also ongoing to determine a way to utilise asphalted areas for solar panel installations, allowing us to exploit a greater range of surfaces.
By Shane Croghan
Featured Image Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Jeremiah Handeland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons