The Environmental Impact of Solar Power

So you’re thinking about solar power. Maybe your main motivation is escaping the skyrocketing cost of electricity for your home or business—or maybe you’re looking for ways to live a greener lifestyle. We’ve written a lot about how solar can save you money, but what about the environmental impacts? Is solar really as good for the planet as it’s cracked up to be?

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Despite the great inroads we have made with renewable energy, the power grid in Victoria, NSW and Queensland is still predominately powered by coal (black & brown) and gas (red):

Being a zero-emission electricity source, solar power is able to avoid one tonne of C02 for every 1MWh of solar power that is generated. Installing a solar power system is the best thing you can do when it comes to reducing your household’s carbon emissions, it’s even better than swapping from your car to public transport when commuting to work!

Pollution, destruction and waste

Air

Solar power doesn’t pollute the air. More solar means a reduction of toxins in the air causing health problems from asthma to headaches to cancer. It also means less exacerbated greenhouse effect, slowing the effects of climate change.

Water

Solar doesn’t result in water pollution. While the extraction of various fossil fuels can affect groundwater, marine habitats, rivers and lakes (sometimes in disastrous ways), solar doesn’t have this impact. It also doesn’t waste any water where traditional electricity processes can consume thousands of litres annually. This major conservation of water is something we as Aussies can appreciate.

Plant and animal life

Research has connected the global crisis of biodiversity loss with coal, oil and gas extraction. This includes the habitat destruction and pollution involved in directly extracting the fuels, and significant impacts from supporting infrastructure and transport.

Using solar decreases deforestation, waste discharge, road-building, drilling and destruction of unique ecosystems. Solar reduces the risk to flora and fauna of oil spills, water contamination, sinking land, and lost habitats.

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Contribute to Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).

In 2015, the Australian Government settled on reforms to the RET, with the target for large-scale generation of 33,000 GWh in 2020. This means that around 23.5 per cent of Australia’s electricity generation in 2020 will be from renewable sources. Installing solar power directly help Australia reach this target as we transition to an energy mix that features a high percentage of our power generated from renewable sources.

The Smallscale Renewable Energy Scheme creates a financial incentive for households, small businesses and community groups to install solar power systems. It does this by legislating demand for Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs). STCs are created for these systems at the time of installation, according to the amount of electricity they are expected to produce or displace in the future. For example, the SRES allows eligible solar PV systems to create, at the time of installation, STCs equivalent to the expected system output between the time of installation and the end of the RET scheme in 2030.

So what difference does your decision about solar really make? Can one greener household really help counter the damage being done to our environment?

We’re each only one of 7.2 billion humans in the world, and trying to make a change on an individual level can be frustrating when so much of the world continues unsustainably. But what about when your decision to get solar means Australia can hit its Renewable Energy Target (RET) of around ¼ of power generated from renewables in 2020? It’s hard to argue that that won’t make a difference.

The federal government’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme awards Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs) to rooftop solar systems because of the amount of electricity they’re expected to save. When you buy your system, STCs have already reduced its price by about 30%, and some state governments have their own schemes. Eligible Victorians can get up to 50% off the already-discounted price of their systems.

There’s also the fact that if the RET is successful, renewables look a whole lot less like unrealistic wishful thinking and a whole lot more like an inevitable shift for our society—even to those who might not be so keen to believe it.

But, you say, solar products have to be manufactured first. What about the environmental costs of that process?

True, a plant making solar panels uses power, which (for the time being) doesn’t necessarily come from a zero-carbon source itself. This ‘carbon debt’ applies to all sources of energy: building wind turbines and nuclear power plants takes large quantities of concrete and steel, while fossil fuels have to be extracted and transported by machines and vehicles, and the infrastructure associated with mining often causes methane leaks. Researchers have measured how efficiently a source of energy pays off its carbon debt by looking at ‘embodied energy use’.

How does solar’s embodied energy use look?

It looks very good.

10% of the power generated by fossil fuels is negated by the energy used in the process of generating it. For solar, the cost is just 4%. The more technology advances and the more renewable energy can be used in manufacturing, the better this figure could get. There’s also significant potential for recycling PV parts, reducing the embodied energy of future panels.

Long story short, the carbon footprint of your personal solar system is a one-off at the beginning of its life, followed by two decades of zero-carbon energy production which easily offset that initial cost.

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