Why Make the Shift to Solar Energy?

As the world’s interest in sources of clean and efficient energy increases and our supply of oil and natural gas inevitably decline, taking a critical look at renewable energy assets to ensure our future has never been more important. There are various sources of renewable energy, but one renewable asset that could meet our energy needs for many years to come is solar power.  Why should we make the shift to solar?

There are many reasons to take advantage of the free and abundant power of the sun.  The first and foremost reason, however, is that utilizing solar energy to power our planet is better for the environment than burning fossil fuels to generate the energy we need.  Ironically, coal, oil and gas – the fossil fuels we have relied on in the past – are early beneficiaries of solar energy because they were formed hundreds of millions of years ago from decomposing plants. Those decomposing plants first grew using the light from the sun (a process called “photosynthesis”).  

But, burning the fossil fuels that come from these decomposed plants negatively affects our environment because the process releases carbon dioxide and other gases – called greenhouse gases – that trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere.  Too much of these greenhouse gases that are released by the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to global climate change. So, the number one reason for making the shift to solar energy is that capturing energy from the sun does not create greenhouse gases.  

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the burning of fossil fuels during the last 150 years has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 25 percent. Levels of methane and nitrous oxide have also increased.  The presence of ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxode in our atmosphere essentially traps the sun’s heat within the Earth’s atmosphere rather than allowing it to escape into space, thereby contributing to increases in temperatures around the globe both on land and sea.  New research, for example, indicates that half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has vanished in the past 27 years due to increases in ocean temperatures as a result of climate change.  A key factor involved in the steep decline of the Reef is the problem of coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures.   Capturing energy directly from the sun does not increase temperatures on Earth.  

In addition to contributing to global climate change, burning fossil fuels also pollutes the air, leading to negative health effects for both people and animals. Exposure to the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels can cause headaches and increase the risk of heart disease. According to GreenEnergyChoice.com, more than 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are produced just by power plants each year. Sulphur oxides produced when burning fossil fuels create sulphuric acid when these oxides combine with water vapor. As this acid accumulates in lakes and streams, it makes the habitats uninhabitable for plants and animals.  Solar energy does not create negative chemical reactions when generated or used.  

Burning fossil fuels also results in thermal pollution. The process of burning any substance generates heat, and this heat is often released into lakes and streams when the water that they contain is used as a coolant. The increased temperatures in these lakes and streams upsets the ecosystem, causing some species’ populations to increase and others to decrease.  

 

Solar energy does not create nor contribute to these environmental problems.  There are emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting and installing solar energy systems but once installed, solar energy does not cause pollution. Making the shift to solar energy is an important step in fighting climate change and the gradual warming of our planet. The average residential solar system offsets about 100,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide in 20 years – the equivalent of driving a car for 100,000 miles.  In addition, because there are no moving parts involved in most applications of solar power, there is no associated noise.  Solar is a quiet and clean source of energy.

 

Solar energy is becoming more and more popular because the evidence of the negative impact of the burning of fossil fuels on our environment is too clear to ignore.  It is critical that we invest in the technologies and infrastructure needed to support solar energy use around the world.  In some places, this is beginning to happen.  More and more people are paying attention to what is happening to the Earth.

The International Energy Agency’s Trends in Photovoltaic Applications report, with data provided through 2014, indicates which countries are generating the most power from solar.  What’s surprising about this list is that relatively tiny countries are on it. Germany, Japan, Italy — they all rank higher than the US, even though we have much more land.

That is because the current technology used to generate solar power requires a lot of space. It also requires a commitment from national and state leaders.  The fact that these small countries are leading the way in overall capacity is impressive.  Also worth noting, however, is the obvious conclusion:  how much opportunity there is to install more solar in places that have a lot of open land, like the US.

Based on 2014 data, here are the top ten users of solar power in the industrialized world ranked by the number of megawatts generated:

10 South Korea 2, 398 megawatts

9 Belgium 3, 156 megawatts

8 Australia 4, 130 megawatts

7 Spain 5, 376 megawatts

6 France 5, 678 megawatts

5 US 18, 317 megawatts

4 Italy 18, 622 megawatts

3 Japan 23, 409 megawatts

2 China 28, 330 megawatts

1 Germany 38, 250 megawatts

 

Congratulations to the people and governments who are making the shift to solar power.   We should recognize their accomplishment as well as push forward to expand our individual and collective solar energy capabilities.  The future of our planet depends on it.