The Environmental Benefits of Solar Power for Communities

A community-owned solar system can be a great way to bring clean, renewable energy to low-income communities. It can also help communities combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, greatly contribute to global warming. Removing these fuels from power production and replacing them with a cleaner energy source is essential for combatting climate change.

Reduced Carbon Emissions

According to experts, one of the advantages of solar power is its efficiency in reducing carbon emissions. It also provides other environmental benefits, including reducing water consumption, restoring ecosystems and protecting local wildlife. Life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for solar energy systems are incredibly low, typically less than 25 g/kWh on average. This is a significantly lower carbon footprint than many conventional fossil fuel sources of electricity, such as coal-fired and nuclear plants. These solar technologies are based on renewable resources, like sunlight. These sources of electricity produce no emissions during the generation process; therefore, they have a much smaller carbon footprint from “cradle to grave.” However, our energy mix has room for improvement, so solar power is essential for reducing emissions and combating climate change. Utility-scale solar facilities can be especially effective at reducing emissions since they transform sunlight into electricity, distribute it and store it for future use.

Reduced Water Consumption

For communities, solar power brings several environmental benefits. It helps to reduce water consumption which occurs when fossil fuel power plants are used for energy production. These plants consume significant amounts of fresh water to generate electricity. Still, they often discharge some or all of that water back into local basins, reducing their impact on the quality and availability of water locally. This reduced water usage also means that renewables — such as solar power — can help alleviate many of the water issues afflicting developing countries worldwide, which face limited access to clean drinking water or insufficient supply. For example, a report by the World Resources Institute estimates that switching India’s thermal power plant capacity to wind and solar energy would significantly decrease its water use.

One key way that solar community projects reduce water consumption is through efficiency and recycling in industrial manufacturing. For instance, a new solar panel manufacturing facility in western New York recycles up to 70% of the water used to make panels. Another way that communities benefit from using solar is through savings on their energy bills. This is because the cost of electricity can be lower when it is generated from a renewable source, so it makes financial sense for low-income households to adopt renewables. In addition, using renewables can provide more resilience during a natural disaster, such as storms or floods, by allowing families to store power in battery storage systems or microgrids. This can prevent energy shortages and damage to essential infrastructure.

Restoring Ecosystems

Solar power is a major player in climate change decarbonization, and one of its primary environmental benefits is its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, solar energy projects can also have negative impacts on local ecosystems. Ecologists say a solar farm’s water use for cleaning solar collectors and concentrators or cooling turbine generators can degrade nearby ecosystems, especially in arid areas. This can cause biodiversity to decline. Fortunately, some solar farms use restoration practices to improve biodiversity and soil health. By rethinking how solar panels are constructed and placed, solar farm operators can turn once-degraded grounds into fertile ground for pollinators and other wildlife. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are working on a new project to study the impact of restorative solar energy on land. They will explore how the land under and around solar panels can recover from past harmful practices that have led to soil deterioration, including pesticide use and annual tilling.

Minimal Land Use

Solar power is an essential part of the transition to renewable energy sources, but it can also wreak havoc on land use. This is especially true for utility-scale facilities. Increasingly, federal and state tax incentives have accelerated solar facility development. This creates a new challenge for local governments as they must prepare to evaluate these applications and update their land-use regulations. However, a new approach to solar siting aims to minimize the impact on the land while meeting broader sustainability goals. This approach is known as agrivoltaics or agro photovoltaics, and it considers both solar and agricultural land uses.

An agrivoltaic system can optimize solar panel efficiency and reduce installation costs by co-locating with agriculture or grazing. Additionally, it can improve the health of farm workers by providing a cooler microclimate during the day. While this approach can be a win-win for the community, it can be challenging for local governments to regulate and permit these facilities effectively. The challenges can vary widely depending on the specific type of facility, location and other factors. Fortunately, planning and zoning tools are available to localities to help them regulate and plan for utility-scale solar facilities. 

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