Why Solar? Keep Me Healthy; Preserve My Wilderness!

If I were asked the advantages of using cleaner energies I would explain about how these energies positively affect climate change, after all energy production accounts for 1/3 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. I would also explain that these energies are called renewable because they don’t rely on a source that takes millions of years to create, needs to be mined and refined, before being spent in a way that creates air, water, and land pollution.

I tend to focus on the global impacts, but lately I have been considering the impacts on the community level. A few years ago the last two coal plants in Chicago closed. Plants like these just don’t make sense; especially in such a densely populated area; especially when many of those living in the area are finding more and more ways to live more sustainably. That’s why these weren’t the last coal plants in Chicago, they were the last coal plants in any large metropolitan area in the U.S.

We’ve known for a long time that burning fossil fuels causes more than smog and climate change. Health problems greatly increase with proximity to plants like Chicago’s; these plants alone caused 41 deaths and 550 ER visits every year. This Chicago Tribune article talks about the specifics. Chicago Coal Plants Close Article

The writers spoke to those in the community who organized grassroots campaigns to make a healthy community. The impacts of coal plants are great, but it is inspiring to see that the long struggle of the community can be successful.

Another successful fight occurred around Great Smoky Mountains NP. When I think of National Parks I think of awesome wildlife, views that go on forever, and breathing in the purest air in the world. But this is not the case in the Smoky Mountains where smog from power plants and factories as far as the Ohio Valley contributed to decreased visibility of 80% since 1948. The Smoky Mountains have some of the most polluted air of any national parks, and the pollution impacts more than our ability to breathe while hiking. Acid rain and ozone pollution have become major problems in the park; adversely affecting river, wild, and human life.

GRSM-Visibility NPS
Great Smoky Mountain Visibility

A few years ago the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to shut down almost 60 coal fired units. This article outlines the potential environmental impacts of the plant closures, Great Smoky Mountain Plants Close Article , and this interview with the National Parks Conservation Association gives a view on the impact the closures have had on the park, Great Smoky Mountain Plants Close Interview.

Over the last few years agreements have been made to shut down more than 100 coal fired plants. As these older plants shut down the energy they produce will have to come from other sources. It makes sense to use more renewable, cleaner sources like solar and wind. Even if new fossil fuel plants produce less pollution they will never be the cleanest technology, and will always rely on limited resources.

Northern Arizona has been the site of another fight over coal power. The plant is owned by a group of utilities, it is on Navajo land, and uses coal mined from other Navajo land, and the plant is only 15 miles from the Grand Canyon. The pollution from the plant affects as far away as Nevada. But, in this situation, the people who are most greatly affected by the plant, the Navajo, people in the tourism business, and the tourists are only a small portion of the customers. It’s unfair considering the energy is used as far away as central California.

The plant is responsible for 300 asthma attacks and 25 heart attacks every year, but affects the area in less measureable ways also. This great article from the “LA Times” gives a feeling of what it is like to live in the shadow of the smoke stacks, People and the Navajo Generating Station Article.

The fight is still going on to shut down and clean up the plant, but it is drawing more attention. Last year the LA Department of Water and Power, and NV Energy both divested from the plant. This prompted the closing of one of the three generators. This probably won’t have a large impact, but it is a start. An article from the “Arizona Republic” has more details, Navajo Generating Station Impact Article.

Another large issue with fossil fuel generation is getting the fuels out of the ground. We have seen the impact of mountains being moved to get to coal in the Appalachians. Recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea and the fight over fracking has brought more awareness to other mining areas. But coal, natural gas, and petroleum have been mined in our backyards for a long time.

Last year I camped in the Alleghany National Forest in Pennsylvania. I saw quite a few drilling sites for oil and natural gas. It dampened my experience to see this industrial equipment in such a beautiful area. It also made me consider the impact on the forest and wildlife. It must take a lot of equipment, pipelines, trucks, and workers to mine and move the material – and disturb the forest ecology.

Recently, I read an article in the “Sun Sentinel” about oil drilling in the Everglades, Everglades Oil Drilling Article. The wells are located in an Everglades preserve called Big Cypress, and more are being proposed. There have been spills from the wells, and most of what was spilled has been contained. Since 2011 168 gallons of oil were spilled and lost. But even a little oil can have a big impact; using great resources and efforts to clean-up even contained spills. With more wells there is more potential for large spills; it is not if, but when a spill will happen, and how big the impact will be.

raccoon point
Raccoon Point Drilling Pad

These are supposed to be the most pristine places in the country, but pollution and human impact from mining and electricity production are affecting these areas more and more. No energy is 100% clean, and human activities have an impact, but we should be working to alleviate our impact so that we are healthy, the Earth is healthy, and we have beautiful areas to get away to, think, and breathe.

Now that I have examined all of the issues I feel that health of the people, and the local environment are the best reasons I can give for renewable energy.

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Why Solar?

I am currently studying to be able to do assessments for prospective solar photovoltaic sites. Since I will primarily be working with homeowners interested in solar I became intrigued as to what prompts people to investigate solar for their homes. I know most people get solar to be environmentally friendly and save money, and some have the added desire to become energy independent or have stable electricity in areas with limited service. But I wanted to learn more about these reasons, and discover additional reasons people have; surely there must be some. So I’m checking out the internet, and over the next few posts I will be sharing my thoughts on some of the articles, posts, and videos I come across.

Solar is becoming more popular, and costs continue to go down, falling by 13% to 18% every year for the last 5 years. A recent NPR Morning Edition report describes how one homeowner has decided to get solar simply because the price has fallen so fast.

Morning Edition Link

One reason for the price drop is that new panel producers are creating more options for the high demand. But there also have been new products developed which have made installation more uniform, and installers are becoming more experienced. The installer in the report says that the project time has dropped from 2 days to 4 hours.

The report prompts intriguing considerations in regards to the negative consequences of new manufacturers producing cheaper panels. Most panels are warrantied for 20 to 30 years, but most systems using high quality panels and are older than 30 years often have very little reduction in efficiency. It will be 20 or more years before we know if cheaper panels equate to less efficiency over time. Another consideration is whether or not the company will be around long enough to honor any warranties. The following testimonial, although from a panel manufacturer, has a list of considerations that one homeowner used when choosing an installer and panels. Although a long standing business isn’t necessarily a sign of quality and ethics, the homeowner in the testimonial makes some good points.

Homeowner Testimonial Link

Another consideration is that with more competition, new companies will have less regard for human, and environmental issues. What is the tipping point where pollution from the production and disposal of the panels and equipment outweighs the pollution prevented from the electricity produced? And, how does it compare to other renewable systems? If you only care about the cost savings of solar, then you may not care about this; however, I think most people considering solar are doing so in part as a way to live a more sustainable lifestyle, so ethics and the environment have to be a big consideration.

As costs continue to fall, we will see more photovoltaic systems, and it will likely become mainstream. To me, and many others I’m sure, it is important to create a global renewable energy system with people and the environment in mind.