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Is Purchasing a Solar Energy System the Most Important Contribution You Can Make to Save the Environment?

We write a lot in this blog about the financial benefits of purchasing a solar power system. And it's true! Solar panels are warranted for 25 years and will likely last for a lot longer than that. You'll save money on your electricity bills and add equity to your house. However, maybe the most important thing of all is that you'll be helping to save the environment by drastically reducing your carbon impact.

We wouldn't be in the solar business if we didn't have a passionate concern for our natural environment and consider ourselves caretakers of our planet for future generations. Climate change is in large part man-made. Why do we make this claim? In short, we trust the science. We also understand the dilemma that our civilization faces. Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels has had a dramatic impact on our natural environment causing our planet to warm, altering our ecosystem, creating more severe weather events, and changing the composition of our air and water. There is a scientific consensus. If anything, look no further than the NASA website with this striking photo on the proof:

The chart shows the level of CO2 in the atmosphere ebbing and flowing for hundreds of thousands of years until a sudden and dramatic spike occurred around 200 years ago that coincides with the birth of the industrial revolution. The rise of CO2 levels is the primary cause of climate change. The industrial revolution was founded on burning fossil fuels to power machines to perform labor that could not be done through sheer muscle power alone. From the start of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, the planet's population more than doubled and hundreds of millions of people were taken out of abject poverty. The standard of living of our civilization has continued to follow an upward trajectory ever since. But there are consequences for having a modern society built on the expenditure of a tremendous release of energy. Those consequences eventually will reduce the quality of life with impacts of decreased physical health, the spread of infectious diseases, and human developmental effects. These are challenges that have to be addressed.

For me, the greatest proof of climate change is when NASA says it is now scientific fact. A thousand years from now society will look back on our era and pay homage to the most important thing that humanity has ever done: send human beings off the Earth and touch down on another celestial body. NASA accomplished this with a vehicle bounding through the heavens that had 1/1000th of the computing power of the device you're reading this blog on. I'd say that's an organization I trust to educate me on the impact of climate change on mankind.

So where do we stand:

  • We believe that climate change is real.
  • We believe in economic progress.
  • We believe that climate change can be managed and eventually mankind can reach a sustainable equilibrium where we can balance economic progress with the needs of our natural environment. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The biggest impact humanity has on climate change is through the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity to power our homes and businesses and to transport us in vehicles. If there is a  solution to climate change it is going to have to be a combination of technological and financial. Purchasing a solar installation is both. It is providing a solution to something that you need (electricity production) to go along with a public benefit (saving the environment).

Writing this, we can state with confidence that installing a solar power system on your home or business is the single most impactful action you can take to help our environment. Your solar panels generate zero emissions and is non-polluting. There are four environmental impact listings we will look at to measure this: coal saved, trees planted, car travel, and energy efficiency.

Coal Saved

It takes about one pound of coal to generate 1kWh of electricity. The typical household uses nearly 1,000kWh of electricity per month. That means you are talking about six tons of coal to power the average house.  In Ohio, about 60% of our electricity comes from coal burning power plants.

If you get an array to offset 100% of your electricity bill, you will be preventing, on average, six tons of coal every year for at least 25 years. This means over the warranty of your solar panels, you will prevent 150 tons of coal from being burned. How much is 150 tons? That is an entire train car of coal. That is as much coal as a power plant will burn all by itself in a single day. That is 300,000 pounds. An average elephant weighs 6,000 pounds. That's like 50 elephants worth of coal. And all foregone by having solar panels for your home. 

Trees Planted

The average American home emits over 16,000 pounds of CO2 annually. It takes 24 fully grown, 40-foot tall mature trees to offset that much. Each tree will take in 670 pounds of CO2 per year. Getting a solar energy system will remove as much CO2 out of the atmosphere over the course of 25 years as 600 trees. If you plant trees at the recommended distance apart (10 feet by 10 feet) it would mean nearly an acre and a half of fully grown trees worth of CO2 you would be saving. How many saplings would you have to plant to have the same impact? The rule of thumb is ten saplings are equal to one full-grown tree to remove the CO2 from the atmosphere. So over the course of 25 years you are talking about planting 6,000 trees to have the same impact as installing a solar power system.

Car Travel

The EPA estimates that the average person drives 12,000 miles per year with an approximate rating of a car with 20MPG. The average car will use 600 gallons of gas per year. There are 19.4 lbs. of CO2 produced per gallon used, so over the course of a year, a car will contribute 11,640 pounds of CO2. A home with a solar array will generally remove the emissions expenditure of 1.33 cars from our highways. And to combine a solar energy system with an electric vehicle? There is no better action that you can take to reduce emissions. The environmental costs are greater than the solar panel costs.  

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is always a good thing, but it is not the cure-all you would think it is. Household appliances have become  far more efficient over the last 30 years using 70% less electricity compared with their 1980s models. New LED lightbulbs use 80% less electricity than standard lightbulbs and last 12 times longer, on average. The list goes on. Yet it is the elimination of emissions that will slow and eventually halt climate change, not just the reduction. Elimination is more effective than sheer reduction because there's a limit to how much we can reduce. In fact, the total amount of emissions that will be reduced by energy efficiency in the Clean Power Plan is estimated to be 7%. This is a great number and truly helpful, but it is not enough.

What I've seen is that the main driver behind solar energy system interest is environmental, but that is not all what sells people on the system. The tipping point is often the pragmatic financial savings and return you get on your investment. But the actual environmental savings: saving land, water, trees, fewer emissions in the air, cleaner water, is what ultimately defines a solar purchase. The solar panel costs are on par with the electricity grid so whether you get the most efficient solar panels, the best solar panels, or get cheap solar panels, purchasing a solar array should be one of the best decisions you ever made. 

Because it is. 

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