The Effects of Global Warming on Solar

With a Focus on Commercial and Industrial (C&I) Systems

by: Lee Streisfield-Leitner, AEE-REP, NAPCEP, Business Development Manager, 174 Power Global C&I

Much has been said about how solar will play a huge role in combating global warming. This article reviews that role, then looks at the opposite: how solar installations will be impacted by global warming and what, if anything, to do in response.

No, the title of this article isn’t backwards. Many, many people have already written about the effects of solar on global warming – more accurately, how solar energy is a critical tool in our efforts to mitigate the severity of the climate crisis that is upon us.

We’re mostly going to discuss the opposite: how global warming will affect solar energy systems and, therefore, what we may need to consider regarding the design, installation, and maintenance of those systems. This is something that doesn’t seem to get much mention, though it should.

SOLAR MITIGATES GLOBAL WARMING

Carbon Reduction

As a form of clean, renewable energy, solar (along with wind, hydropower, wave/tidal and geothermal) holds out tremendous promise in the process of transitioning away from fossil fuels. As we continue to install solar energy systems, we tap into a vast, clean renewable resource (the sun’s energy), meeting more and more of our needs without producing significant amounts of greenhouse gasses. Over a typical 25-35-year service life, solar systems produce no emissions in their creation of energy, since they are using the sun as their “fuel” (i.e., rather than burning a fossil fuel like coal, diesel or natural gas). Once a solar panel has been producing electricity for about a year its embodied energy has been erased, making no further contribution to global warming while pumping out decades of clean electricity over its remaining service life. Thus, solar is described as having an energy payback time (EPBT) of about a year. By comparison, a coal burning power plant has an EPBT of approximately 3.3 years, and a nuclear power plant has an EPBT of about 2.5 years.

As we continue to install solar energy systems, we tap into a vast, clean renewable resource (the sun’s energy), meeting more and more of our needs without producing significant amounts of greenhouse gasses

LEE STREISFIELD-LEITNER, AEE-REP, NABCEP

Water Use

In addition to a clear win on the carbon front for electricity production (vs. fossil fuels), solar wins when it comes to water use: one lifecycle analysis suggests a median of 330 liters of water used per MWh of average energy production for solar whereas, for example, coal comes in at 2,200 liters/MWh, natural gas at 598 liters/MWh or nuclear at 2,290 liters/MWh. (Note in the table below solar is referred to as “PV” – short for “photovoltaic.” Also, note that the X axis is logarithmic.)

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