How the sun impacts our environment

Millie HennickJuly 23, 20181230

How the sun impacts our environment

Climate change is real. Man’s activities have polluted the planet and we have an obvious need for alternative energy sources that don’t add to the pollution of the planet. The sun provides a tremendous resource for generating clean and sustainable electricity without toxic pollution or global warming emissions. The potential environmental impacts associated with solar power — land use and habitat loss, water use, and the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing — can vary greatly depending on the technology, which includes two broad categories: photovoltaic (PV) solar cells or concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP).

Land Use

Environmental factors can greatly affect where solar systems are deployed. Depending on their location, larger utility-scale solar facilities can raise concerns about land degradation and habitat loss. Total land area requirements vary depending on the technology, the topography of the site, and the intensity of the solar resource. Estimates for utility-scale PV systems range from 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt, while estimates for CSP facilities are between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt. Unlike wind facilities, there is less opportunity for solar projects to share land with agricultural uses. Land impacts from utility-scale solar systems can be minimized by locating them at lower-quality locations such as brownfields, abandoned mining land, or existing transportation and transmission corridors.

Water and solar energy

Solar PV cells do not use water for generating electricity. However, as in all manufacturing processes, some water is used to manufacture solar PV components. Solar thermal plants (CSP), like all thermal electric plants, require water for cooling. Water use depends on the plant design, plant location, and the type of cooling system. CSP plants that use wet-recirculating technology with cooling towers withdraw between 600 and 650 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. CSP plants with once-through cooling technology have higher levels of water withdrawal, but lower total water consumption (because water is not lost as steam). Dry-cooling technology can reduce water use at CSP plants by approximately 90 percent. Moreover, the tradeoffs to these water savings are higher costs and lower efficiencies. Dry-cooling technology is significantly less effective at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The geographical regions in the United States that have the highest potential for solar energy also tend to be those with the driest climates, so careful consideration of these water tradeoffs is essential. It is important to remember that solar still works even when the sun is not shining!

Now is the time to join the solar revolution!

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