The recent Paris climate conference has garnered significant media attention and further highlighted the importance of addressing global climate change. The issue of energy is at the heart of these talks as nations try to determine how to transition away from fossil fuel to renewable sources to combat climate change. One of the main draws of solar power is that it can help countries drastically reduce their carbon footprint; however, there are also other environmental benefits to solar power.
Reduction of air pollution
The most well-known air pollutant from fossil fuels is carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the primary greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change; yet, it is far from the only one. Coal combustion releases nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and many other hazardous substances. Nitrogen oxide alone contributes greatly to the acidification of lakes and streams, which is detrimental to water resources, flora, and fauna. Furthermore, these compounds strongly contribute to smog, the brown cloud that hovers over so many cities. Burning natural gas is slightly cleaner, but still contributes large amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane, which also contribute to smog and are linked to a variety of respiratory ailments. Quite simply, solar power eliminates all of these pollutants because it does not require the burning of fossil fuels.
The recent fracking boom in the U.S. has brought attention to the threat it poses to water supplies. The large volumes of water used in the fracking process can stress surface and ground water supplies; the Ohio Environmental Council estimates that an average well may use 5.6 million gallons per frack. As a comparison, that amount of water could supply an average family for 51 years. The growth of fracking also greatly increases the risk of groundwater contamination. Spills, faulty well construction, and fracking discharge can all contribute to water contamination. The acquisition and transport of fossil fuels has also resulted in many high profile oil spills over the past couple decades, including the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the more recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There have also been countless spills around the world into freshwater sources. Additionally, because solar power only requires the sun and some photovoltaic panels, many of the activities that threaten water supplies are avoided.
More efficient land use
Many ecosystems around the world face the consistent degradation of natural habitats from human use. In some cases, solar power also contributes to this, but it also has the potential to greatly reduce the environmental footprint of energy generation by utilizing the existent infrastructure in cities around the world. A transition to localized energy generation, a real possibility with solar power, would reduce the need for expansive transmission networks and sprawling power plants that degrade the natural environment.
All things considered, there are many environmental benefits to solar power,
and a shift to solar could improve our air, water, and ecosystems.