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Switching to solar energy on a large scale would have a profound positive environmental impact. Usually, the word environmental is used to refer to our natural environment. It calls up images of blue skies, majestic mountains, vast oceans, trees, lakes, and streams. However, as social beings, our environment also includes towns and cities and the communities of people that live in them. Environmental quality includes all of these elements, and solar energy isn’t just good for the natural environment, but the social environment as well. Installing even one solar energy system can make a measurable improvement on every aspect of our environment.
Benefits to Health Environment
A 2007 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) concluded that adopting solar energy on a large scale would significantly reduce emissions of nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide. Exposure to these two toxic substances is hazardous to human health, and in many cases, can be deadly. The list of health problems associated with prolonged exposure is frightening indeed. It includes everything from chronic bronchitis to permanent lung damage, from infertility to genetic mutation. They estimated that the United States could also prevent 100,995,293 CO2 emissions simply by replacing natural gas and coal with 100 GW of solar power.
In short, the NREL found that the use of solar power would result in fewer cases of pollution-related illnesses, as well as reduce cases of respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Further, that reduction in illness would translate into fewer lost workdays and lower healthcare costs. What the scientific report did not mention was that the working poor are disproportionately exposed to these toxic elements. It is their homes that are located closest to the oil refineries and manufacturing plants that produce them, and it is they who often lack the resources to move.
Benefits to Financial Environment
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2016, the average American home consumed 10,766 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year. Louisiana residents ranked highest in consumption, at 14,881 kWh, while Hawaii ranked lowest, with only 6,061 per household. The prices of energy also vary, by region, with New England paying the highest prices for both natural gas and electricity as well as having the highest percentage increase.
Average water prices are also increasing steadily. As global warming decreases the supply of water, those prices increases will rise even more dramatically. Solar electricity uses up to 89% less water than coal-powered electricity, which would help water prices remain more stable. Widespread adoption of solar energy would also help eliminate these price disparities.
Benefits to the Natural Environment
Solar energy causes up to 97% less acid rain than coal and oil, and up to 98% less marine eutrophication, which depletes water of oxygen. Solar electricity also uses 80% less land. Of course, all forms of energy production have some impact on the natural environment. However, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the environmental impact of solar energy is minimal compared to that of fossil fuel energy.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab conducted a study from 2007 to 2015. They concluded that within those eight years, solar energy had produced $2.5 billion in climate savings, another $2.5 billion in air pollution savings, and prevented 300 premature deaths. Because of the expansion in solar energy within those eight years, .09 billion of those climate savings, .07 billion of the air pollution savings and 94 of the premature deaths avoided were achieved in 2015 alone.
Benefits to the Social Environment
As one article rightly points out, calculating the environmental impact of alternative energy sources is a difficult task. That difficulty is due in part to how regions differ, both geologically and socioeconomically. The potential environmental impact of solar energy differs by region. For example, in California, natural gas is the primary source of energy being displaced by wind and solar energy. A new solar plant in California might result in raising real estate prices for low-income people no longer near an active fracking site. Mid-Atlantic regions rely more on coal. In that region, a new solar plant may mean closing down a coal mine and preventing thousands of dollars in health care costs. It could also prevent hundreds of cases of premature deaths due to black lung.
Whatever the region, the one constant is that, unlike the fossil fuel industry, the positive Impact of Solar Energy is equally distributed to people at every socioeconomic level. All humans require clean air and clean drinking water to live long, healthy lives. With solar energy, the quality of life is improved for everyone, whether those lives are lived in a penthouse suite or in a modest mobile home. So far this year, our human population has increased by approximately 80 million people. As it continues to rise, it will become more important than ever not only to conserve our planet’s resources, but to distribute them more fairly. As social injustices escalate into global wars, the cost of our failure to do so may be too high a price to pay.