Is Solar Energy Really Better for the Environment?

There has been some debate about the effectiveness of solar as a means to reduce our impact on the planet. After all, you have to make all of the equipment to collect sunlight, right? And solar is only around 20% efficient at taking the sun’s energy and producing electricity. So, you ask, is solar actually better for the environment? Well the short answer is yes! The long answer can be a bit confusing, so we’ve tried to simplify it here.

First let’s take a look at the most obvious form of pollution: CO2. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere whenever fossil fuels are burned. Why do you burn them? Because it will heat water, turn it into steam, which then mechanically turns a turbine to create alternating current. Solar creates no emissions after they are installed, so it’s easy to compare the difference in CO2.

Solar Energy in South Carolina

In South Carolina, renewables make up about 6% of the total energy produced. About half of that is hydro. Solar accounts for only a couple percent, though it is growing rapidly. Nuclear is the number one producer of energy in the state at over 50%. The polluters of CO2 are natural gas (19%) and coal (21%). According to the Energy Information Administration, the total CO2 pollution is 680lbs/MWh. When you multiply that times the total number of MWh produced in SC, you get 6.5×10^10 pounds of CO2 per year! Sounds like a lot, especially when you can produce power with zero CO2 emissions.

Using the EIA’s emissions numbers for South Carolina (0.68 lbs/kWh), you can easily calculate the benefit of a system. For example, if you own a 10kW system producing 14,600kWh/year, your system offsets about 10k pounds of CO2 each year. Or for the lifetime of the system, it would offset 250 thousand pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, if the alternative was gas or coal. Since South Carolina gets half its power from nuclear, that number would be half: 125k lbs of CO2 saved from entering the atmosphere each year. Not bad.

South Carolina Energy

EIA’s energy summary for South Carolina

What about the cost of producing the equipment and the cost of logistics, like transportation of the materials and installation crews? Well even if we assumed there were no emissions for setting up a central power plant (which we know is not true), the emissions for getting solar setup at your house is offset in the first year. Therefore, we have 24+ years of completely CO2 emission free!

The Costs of Going Solar

Its obvious that solar is a healthier option for CO2 emissions, but isn’t it more expensive than nuclear and coal? Good question. Right now, things are in place to save money by going solar. When you purchase a system in Charleston, you can take 55% right off the cost with state and federal tax income tax incentives. When you look at the levelized cost of energy, solar ends up around $0.6/kWh, at which SCE&G currently charges $.14/kWh. With that being said, yes, solar can be less than half of the cost. Furthermore, due to innovative financing, you can pay nothing up front and save money each month. For more detailed information, see Tax Benefits.

The incentives and utility participation will not last forever. Experts are anticipating changes soon due to utility caps, incentives expiring and a recent trade case with Suniva. If solar works in your favor for price of power and the earth benefits as well, why wouldn’t you make the switch today?

Facts on SC energy data credited to: