Happy World Environment Day!
World Environment Day was first celebrated in 1974, and has since become a platform to raise awareness on various issues our environment faces such as air pollution, sea-level rise, food insecurity, plastic pollution and more.
The first World Environment Day held place in Spokane in the year 1974. Each year has its own theme, and this year’s theme is Ecosystem Restoration. This is a call to action for everyone to take part in protecting and restoring the very ecosystems that allow us to live — from forests and mountains to towns and peatlands to farmlands and oceans.
That is why we think it is important to use this day to raise awareness on the overlap between solar energy and this year’s theme of ecosystem restoration.
Solar’s Impact on Ecosystems
A Google search will turn up questions about solar and wind power for their adverse impacts on ecosystems and wildlife habitat.
Unfortunately, some critics of clean energy who profess a concern for the environment turn out to be paid spokespeople for fossil fuels or nuclear power companies. These bad-faith players have often exaggerated issues with solar and wind power while ignoring the obvious benefits of clean energy to the climate and to local ecosystems. Anyone who really cares about the environment must take such criticisms with a grain of salt.
At the same time, it is fair to talk about the impact of any industry on the environment, including clean energy. Just because solar and wind power are better for the climate than fossil fuels and safer than nuclear power doesn’t mean that clean energy has no impact on ecosystems.
We’ll focus here on solar power, since that’s what we know well, but many of our points could apply to wind power too.
Solar panels are made of a variety of materials such as aluminum, copper and silver, but most important is quartz. The downside to this is that these materials must be extracted from mines in an already-vulnerable environment. As Laura Sonter of the University of Queensland wrote in Mongabay:
While mitigating climate change is vital for conserving biodiversity, and increasing renewable energy production is an important avenue in achieving this goal, increasing metal demand could create huge new mining threats to biodiversity.
Yet, even when you consider the resources used to make panels and operate solar arrays, researchers have shown that solar power is overwhelmingly positive for ecosystems of all kinds.
Once they are installed, solar panels are basically emission-free. And if we think about it further, the amount of pollution that a solar panel produces over its estimated lifespan of 30-40 years, solar panels are up to ten times more environmentally friendly than any other source of energy.
Researchers have even coined a metric called Energy Payback Time (EPBT) to measure how long it takes a solar panel to generate the amount of energy equal to what it took to be created. According to the Department of Energy, it only takes four years for solar panels to achieve EPBT. More than that, the International Renewable Energy Agency explains that over 90% of the materials used in solar panels can be recycled into the next generation.
As to its impact on land, distributed solar power, which involves putting solar panels on rooftops or small pieces of property usually near buildings, is a way of turning unused or unusable spaces into clean power plants. Distributed solar has few impacts on farms, forests, wetlands or other wildlife habitats. Indeed, one of Secure Futures’ customers, Carilion Clinic in Virginia, has become a demonstration project for making a positive impact on land use with solar sheep. It’s a great story.
Larger ground-mounted solar arrays use more land, but even with solar arrays installed, these solar farms can also support agriculture, land conservation and wildlife habitat. For example, pollinator-friendly plantings near solar arrays have become common.
And unlike real estate development, solar development preserves land for future agricultural use. Once a farm or forest is cleared and roads are built to construct a residential subdivision or factory, this land is unlikely ever to return to agricultural or forestry use. Not so with solar. Once a solar array has reached the end of its lifespan, the landowner and the community have the option to continue with solar by replacing the equipment or else to return the land to its former use. Solar farms are a low-impact way for rural communities to get more value out of land in the near term while keeping their options open for the future.
Even while it’s installed and operating, a solar farm is a good neighbor for people and wildlife alike. With little or no need for new roads or utility lines, a solar farm has a much lower impact on local ecosystems than a housing tract or a factory, not to mention a traditional coal or natural gas generating plant.
Let’s not forget the main threat to ecosystems, climate change. Scientists have warned that the economy needs to build out clean energy rapidly during this decade to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Large-scale solar farms installed everywhere will be essential to grow solar at a speed and scale to make a difference.
For ecosystems to survive and thrive, America and the world need all the clean energy we can get, as quickly as we can install it. As Secure Futures installs more and more distributed solar arrays on schools, hospitals, and businesses, we look forward to cooperating with our allies who develop utility-scale solar power projects to provide clean energy through the power grid to millions of homes and businesses.
But whether solar panels are part of a rooftop array or a solar farm, there still remains the issue of what happens to old solar panels. After 35 or 40 years, when solar equipment reaches the end of its usable life, disposal creates waste. Fortunately, many solutions exist for end-of-life recycling of equipment and reprocessing of valuable minerals.
In the end, no energy source can be provided without using resources and creating waste. And no energy source is without its impacts on wildlife and their habitat. It’s not a question of having zero impact on ecosystems. It’s a question of reducing our negative impact or even making a positive impact.
Just compare solar and wind to traditional energy. Which has more negative impact on ecosystems? It’s not even close.
Traditional Energy’s Ecosystem Impact
First, when it comes to threats to ecosystems, climate change is the biggest one, say environmental experts. And solar and wind provide energy that’s almost entirely free of greenhouse gas emissions, making them much more climate friendly than fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that pollute the climate and cause the planet’s atmosphere to heat up dangerously.
As the earth’s temperature increases, there is an equivalent increase in the severity of weather disasters such as wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, coastal storms and more. Weather disasters kill people and displace communities. These disasters also leave natural ecologies in disarray, upheaving entire ecosystems and bringing multitudes of species to the brink of extinction. Cutting climate pollution enough to head off or reduce weather disasters in the future is the best way to help ecosystems and their residents, both human and otherwise.
Second, it’s a severe understatement to say that fossil fuels and nuclear power also use resources and create waste. In fact, traditional energy is one of the most polluting and dangerous industries on earth.
Comparing the limited impact of clean energy on ecosystems with the massive devastation to ecosystems wrought by producing, transporting and burning coal, oil, and gas; along with the impacts of mining uranium, using water, and creating radioactive waste for nuclear power, is a game that traditional energy will always lose.
A solar spill is just a nice day, as the bumper sticker goes. But when things go wrong with fossil fuels or nuclear power, the consequences can be devastating for local environments. Oil spills, pipeline explosions, ponds of coal ash bursting their dams and nuclear plant meltdowns or leaks are just a few of the accidents that are all too common with traditional energy sources.
When it comes to fossil fuels, even when things go the way they’re supposed to, the cost to humans and wildlife alike in local ecosystems is too high. Black lung disease, cancer, and asthma are costs that workers and fence-line communities located near oil refineries or gas compressor stations have had to pay for more than a century. Fouled air and water and contaminated land from fossil fuel extraction spread the damage to fish, birds, and animals too.
Add local pollution to climate pollution, and it’s clear that fossil fuels are always the dirtiest option anywhere you find a coal mine, a fracking well or an oil derrick.
While it is impossible for any source of energy to achieve zero-impact on ecosystems, the least we can do as a society is to choose the energy that has the fewest detrimental effects on the environment. By picking clean energy and especially solar power, we are choosing every day to rebuild ecosystems, to give our earth time to breathe and restore itself.