Did you know that it could take 40 years for biomass emissions to reach the adverse impact of coal-fired emissions? Coal plants release a whopping 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide for every kWh of electricity. On the other hand, the emissions from solar plants are so low (<0.2 g/kWh on average for most air toxins), they are considered negligible.
A study conducted by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. last month shows that solar is the energy source with the lowest negative impact on the environment. This study compared the eco-friendliness of top energy sources, including biomass, coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar and wind power. Five main factors were used to evaluate this, namely; planning and cost risk, climate change impact, air pollution impact, water impact and land impact.
*Source: “The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of Power Generation Fuels” by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. 19 Sept. 2012
Compared to fossil fuels, the environmental effects of solar are almost zero. For example, solar does not contribute to global warming, climate change or acid rain, and it has a low impact on air pollution. While full-scale utility solar plants require land, rooftop and building solar projects require none.
One of the critical factors analyzed in this study is water impact. PV plant operation has minor effects on water usage. Nuclear plants and coal mines can consume water up to 60,000 gallons/MWh and 50,000 gallons/MWh, respectively. Natural gas facilities also need 2 to 10 million gallons of water per well for hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which is a method used in natural gas facilities, requires between 2 to 10 million gallons of water per well. Coalbed methane recovery has removed 172 billion gallons of water from 1997 to 2006.
Aside from water usage, these power sources also have a huge negative impact on water quality. In coal mines, acid mine drainage is the largest source of water pollution. Uranium mining from nuclear plants leaves elevated levels of contaminants in groundwater.
The environmental impact of fossil fuels is predictably high because of its significant contributions on global climate change. The health hazards and environmental damage caused by fossil fuel production also delivers high external costs. For instance, think of the massive costs incurred in the event of nuclear disasters, such as the one in Fukushima last year.
These hidden expenditures are attributed to society and the ecosystem; including resource depletion, air and water pollution, contributions to global climate change, and lastly detrimental impacts to the human health. If you take all of the externalized cost along with manufacturing costs, then it’s probably safe to say: solar is one of the cheapest energy sources in the world today.