Ask Renewable Rayna: Solar Industry’s Environmental Impact
Renewable Rayna Presents Monthly Energy Advice & Information
Question: What are the overall environmental effects of the solar industry?
Capable of generating clean, green and sustainable energy, the sun is a great source for electricity. As of recent, electricity has changed with the discovery and application of power from the sun being collected and stored, off-setting conventional sources of energy. As much of the world is shifting its focus to cleaner power, solar energy has seen a significant rise in importance. According to GMT Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s latest market report, the state of Arkansas added the 18th most solar projects among the 50 states last year with 118 megawatts of solar generation. But what does this shift in clean energy really mean when it comes to the environmental effects of solar energy? Rayna is here to provide some insight.
Sustainable and Resilient
Inexhaustible, solar energy is the largest energy resource available to Earth. The amount of energy received by the planet in an hour due to sunshine is greater than the globe’s entire yearly energy consumption, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
Because solar facilities can be so broadly distributed, and because they’re constructed with many separate devices, they’re better protected against disruptive events like storms, which can knock out power to large populations by damaging just one generator or transformer station in a centralized electricity grid. And because traditional solar technologies do not use water (some require water for maintenance and cleaning), solar becomes more resilient in the face of drought.
Husqvarna Group, located in Nashville, Ark., was recently recognized at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Awards for their “Sustainovation” efforts. The group operates a plastic injection molding manufacturing operation in Nashville. In 2015, the manufacturer launched “Sustainovate,” an innovation-based initiative to make sustainability a real competitive advantage for the company and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one-third before the end of 2035. As a result, in 2017, Husqvarna installed a 1.4-megawatt solar array at the Nashville facility in partnership with Today’s Power, Inc. The array, estimated to have a full twenty-year life benefit, generates approximately thirty percent of the facility’s annual electricity, saving $137,762 over the last twelve-month period, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 33,189 metric tons per year.
Impacts on Air and Water Resources
Solar energy is a non-polluting technology that offset greenhouse gas emissions. For example, for every megawatt of solar installed in Arkansas, has the following impacts:
The technology can reduce noise pollution associated with energy generation because solar arrays are essentially silent. They’re considered safe for humans to operate.
Impacts on Habitats
Due to the tremendous stress on insect pollinator habitats with pesticides, land development, and other actions, pollinator species have declined significantly. Insects like butterflies, moths, honeybees, native bees, and beetles are critical for native plant reproduction (through pollination) and plant community health. Ultimate loss of these insect species could have global scale impacts — wiping out crops, elevating food production costs, and compromising human nutrition.
Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, however, are investigating ways to use pollinator-friendly solar power to reinvigorate pollinator habitats.
Utility-scale solar developments (≥1 megawatt [MW]) are increasing in diversified agricultural landscapes, such as landfills, wastewater treatment facilities, and specifically on former agricultural fields. Driven variously by economics, global climate change actions, air and water pollution, and energy security, utility-scale solar grew at an average rate of 72 percent per year between 2010 and 2016 according to Cleantech.
Solar-sited pollinator habitats can help optimize the land-use efficiency of solar energy developments while not compromising solar panel efficiency.
Much of the land in a solar farm is untended. Research has shown that in many locations these grounds offer an ideal place to establish native plant species, such as prairie grass or wildflowers, which are prevalent pollinator habitats and can encourage steady insect population growth.
In addition to native pollinators that have experienced declines throughout North America, especially in agricultural areas like the Mid-South, the population of the northern bobwhite quail has declined 65 percent in the last 20 years throughout its territory in the southeastern United States, according to some estimates.
Today’s Power has partnered with Quail Forever on a variety of solar projects to develop renewable energy habitats for both quail and pollinators.
The NEA Quail Forever organization recently teamed with Today’s Power and Craighead Electric Cooperative to develop the appropriate seed mix, acquire the seed, and plant native grasses and wildflowers on their “Solar One” project near Brookland, Arkansas. The goal of the project is to generate renewable energy, while also creating important habitat for grassland nesting birds and pollinators. Some of the NEA QF youth members and QF committee members provided volunteer labor to plant the 10-acre Solar One site on March 2, 2019. Native grass species like Little Bluestem and Sideoats Gramma were planted along with a mix of wildflowers including Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Milkweed, Purple Coneflower and 14 other flowering forbs. These wildflowers will grow two to three-feet in height and bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. Likewise, this mixture of grasses and wildflowers create brooding habitat for quail, nesting habitat for grassland songbirds, and pollinator habitat for beneficial insects, while allowing the solar components to function properly and generate green, renewable energy for Northeast Arkansas.
The transition to renewable energy, specifically solar energy, provides cleaner air, water conservation as well as habitat improvement for pollinators and threatened species. Saving on energy bills while benefiting the earth around us makes investments in solar and storage a smart business decision.