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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • May 2018
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Environmental benefits of solar reach far beyond your rooftop

There is a lot to be said about solar and the long-term value it provides as an investment. Solar is, simply put, an appliance. But if you look further, it’s an appliance that “pays you back,” delivers a return on investment and appreciates in value. Ask yourself, “What’s the internal rate of return on my dishwasher?” or “When does your forced air furnace reach cost recovery?” Ultimately, you’ll find that solar delivers more long-term value than most other appliance purchases this day and age.

And while financial performance is many times the main driver toward the decision to invest in a solar power system, it’s easy to overlook the environmental benefits it provides. A solar energy system is a clean energy system — it produces electricity through the conversion of the sun’s light, thereby eliminating the emissions created from burning coal or natural gas. It’s also a renewable energy system, one that uses the sun’s abundant light, which reduces our reliance on finite resources.

Some quick math to frame the following points: it takes approximately 1.25 lbs. of coal to generate 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. The average household in the U.S. uses about 10,800 kWh each year. That means that every home in America requires over 6 tons of coal in order to have electricity for a year. That’s over 19 tons of CO2 emissions in our air, per home, per year.

And the dangerous effects of coal-fired power plants may be affecting you more directly than you know. A story from the Journal Sentinel in early March told of coal dust accumulation found on homes near the WE Energies Oak Creek facility. After sampling and testing from the Environmental Accountability Group and Aspen Consulting, Inc., it was affirmed that coal dust contains toxic metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, and goes on to state, “there is no safe level of coal dust exposure.”

Interestingly, the environmental benefits of solar also trickle down to additional health, economic and monetary benefit. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE) at, “monetizing the environmental health benefits of solar could add ~3.5¢/kWh to the value of solar. The monetary impacts due to environmental degradation and public health impacts seem far removed from the apparent “sticker price” of electricity. Yet quantifying these impacts is essential to understanding the true costs and benefits of solar and conventional generating technologies. Compared with fossil fuel generators, PV produces far lower lifecycle levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and harmful pollutants including fine particular matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).”

Burning fossil fuels for electricity generation not only creates harmful pollution, it also uses a tremendous amount of water. The DOE goes on to say, “water savings from achieving the SunShot (Obama-era initiative) goals could result in the 2015–2050 cumulative savings of 4 percent of total power-sector withdrawals and 9 percent of total power-sector consumption — a particularly important consideration for arid states where substantial solar will be deployed. Improving public health and the environment is but one aspect of solar’s many costs and benefits. Clearly, however, the assignment of value to such ‘external’ impacts has potential implications for policy innovation and the economic competitiveness of solar and other generation technologies.”

To further expand on the impact solar has on water resources, it’s important to remember that solar helps conserve fresh water. Natural gas fracking, coal fired power plants and nuclear power plants require an immense amount of water for extraction, electrical generation, and to facilitate cooling requirements. When generating power with solar, there is no pollution of water resources nor does their “operation” strain local water supply needed for agriculture, drinking systems, and other vital needs.

To the health benefits of solar, an analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that widespread solar adoption would significantly reduce nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter emissions, all of which can cause health problems. NREL found that, among other health benefits, solar power results in fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and lost workdays related to health issues.

The positive impacts of solar energy show unparalleled value not only to the rooftop solar owner, but also the surrounding community and toward the preservation of natural resources as well. Solar provides a sound long-term investment, reduces your negative impact on our environment and contributes to improving the health of those around you. No longer is it a question of whether or not solar is affordable, the question is now, “How can we afford not to?”

Jordan Kaiser

Jordan Kaiser is a Design Consultant with North Wind Renewable Energy Cooperative, specializing in residential solar design and project management. He has worked in the renewable energy industry for seven years and has managed nearly a megawatt of solar projects in Wisconsin. He can be contacted at 715-630-6451 or [email protected]

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