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The Energy Regulatory Office estimates that the volume of gross domestic electricity production for the whole of 2022 was more than 175 TWh, nearly 1% higher than a year earlier. At the same time, the scenario published in June 2023 for preliminary consultation of the update of Poland’s Energy Policy until 2040 (PEP2040) states that Poland’s net electricity production over the next 17 years could increase by 36% to 244 TWh [1]. The referenced facts confirm that demand for electricity is growing. This, in turn, intensifies the pressure on the environment. The necessity of the country’s energy transition towards an economy based on non-conventional energy sources, including solar energy, is therefore undeniable. One of the more important developments is photovoltaics. What environmental benefits does the use of solar energy offer?

Benefits of using solar energy: Reduction of emissions

The main benefit of installing photovoltaic panels is the conversion of a conventional energy source to a renewable one. This is all the more important for the Polish environment, since, according to the National Center for Balancing and Emissions Management, the total volume of carbon dioxide emissions in Poland, which were covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), amounted to nearly 185 million tons in 2022. This is admittedly 4% less than the year before, but still far too much. Of all the industries covered by the EU ETS, utility power plants remain the largest emitter of CO2 (as much as 56% share). This data confirms analyses by the think tank Ember, which also stresses that Poland and Germany together account for two-thirds of CO2 emissions from coal combustion in the EU’s power industry. As Ember analyst Harriet Fox announced, “Poland will soon remain the largest emitter in the European Union if it does not change course.”

Carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity generation process are not the only environmental problem. Coal combustion produces emissions of carbon and nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and dust. In recent years, the volume of PM10 dust emissions exceeded 340,400 tons. Not much less was produced of PM2.5 dust – 254.5 thousand tons [2]. Exceeding the permissible levels of other pollutants is also a problem.

Capturing electricity from photovoltaics does not generate carbon dioxide emissions or other pollutants. It is estimated that each 1,000 kWh of energy harvested from solar radiation translates into a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of about 812 kilograms per year. With a total cumulative PV capacity of 12.189 GW [3], this reduces CO2 emissions by nearly 10 million tons. According to the assumptions of the update to Poland’s Energy Policy until 2040, by the end of this decade, the installed capacity of RES will reach 50 GW, while by 2040 as much as 88 GW. The potential savings for the environment are therefore substantial.

It is also worth mentioning at this point that the production of energy from photovoltaic panels and their consumption on site or with the use of energy storage contributes to reducing transmission losses. Ultimately, this also has a significant impact on the amount of energy produced in conventional power plants and the amount of emissions.

Reduction of methane emissions

The second most harmful greenhouse gas to the climate is methane. As Michal Hetmanski, president of the Instrat Foundation, mentions, “Due to the high harmfulness of methane, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends reducing its emissions as one of the best ways to combat global warming in the coming years.” Although it is not emitted during the combustion of fossil fuels, its emissions are attributable to coal mining. Exactly 420,000 tons of the element were emitted by Polish coal mines in 2021. Ember’s data show that as much as 70% of methane leaks from active coal mines in Europe occurred in Poland. Much of the emissions come from sites managed by PGG, which focuses on mining thermal coal for electricity generation. It can be assumed that the reduction in demand for fossil fuels brought about by the construction of photovoltaic plants will have a positive impact on the reduction of methane emissions in Poland. This trend is already visible, by the way. Methane emissions in 2021 were 3% lower than in the previous 12 months and 28% lower than a decade earlier.

korzyści ekologiczne energii słonecznej

 

Other environmental hazards caused by fossil fuel extraction

Reducing the consumption of fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas triggered by the installation of RES, also helps reduce pressure on natural resources. Mine operations affect fauna, agricultural or forest land. Negative impacts include:

  • Air – through emissions of gas and dust pollutants.
  • Water – through drainage, discharges of saline water from dewatered mines [4].
  • Rock formations and landforms – through deformation, flooding or shaking.
  • Soils – through contamination by waste from fossil fuel deposits.
  • Crops, forests, livestock – reductions in crop yields, afforestation and livestock numbers caused by the exclusion of land affected by mining damage or contamination.

Intensive mine operations also lead to increased seismic shaking. The rapid development of photovoltaics, which will replace energy obtained from the combustion of non-renewable resources, will minimize all these negative effects. In this sense, solar panels improve the quality of life of residents and the environment.

korzyści ekologiczne energii słonecznej

Environmental benefits of using solar energy: Impact of photovoltaics on biodiversity conservation

Although it is not talked about loudly, more and more studies confirm the positive impact of photovoltaics on biodiversity. On the one hand, it is about the reduction of pressure on the expansion of conventional energy sources (power plants), which repeatedly destroy valuable habitats. On the other, it’s about species composition and abundance in areas developed by photovoltaic farms and areas close to them. A group of scientists from the UK conducted studies on selected large-scale PV installations and control areas, which confirmed that [5]:

  • more plant species were present in the areas than in the control areas (in particular, lush vegetation was noticeable between the rows of panels),
  • invertebrates (butterflies and bumblebees) found on the farms are more abundant, with similar numbers of species,
  • grey hares were observed under the PV panels, using the shelter and resting in the hollows they had dug.

In 2021, researchers at Lancaster University published a paper that changes the view of the relationship between the construction of photovoltaic farms and pollinating insects [6]. The issue is really important, since 75% of all crops in the world are produced thanks to the activity of bees and other insects. At the same time, more and more areas are occupied every year for foraging, nesting and reproduction. One problem is the scale of the use of aggressive agrochemicals in industrial agriculture. It is photovoltaic installations that can help restore the balance. Farms are usually located in rural areas, which is where pollinating insect activity is most needed. Favorable for the development of this group of animals are plant resources placed under the panels (for example, in the form of agrophotovoltaic crops or photovoltaic meadows). Thanks to their presence, insects obtain a feeding base and space for nesting and reproduction. In addition, the researchers encouraged the creation of hedgerows on the border of the farms. The areas described in this way bring a number of other environmental benefits, which include:

  • rainwater retention – the robust root systems of herbaceous plants drain and hold water in the soil, thus allowing it to survive periods of drought,
  • protection from desertification – tall vegetation protects the land from wind erosion and water evaporation,
  • phytoremediation – plants have the ability to clean the soil of contaminants.

 

korzyści ekologiczne energii słonecznej

Environmental benefits of solar energy: Photovoltaics vs. noise

An integral companion of electricity production is noise. It is particularly troublesome for workers and the surroundings of conventional and wind power plants. Vibrations occurring in the vicinity of large power plants can have a negative impact on living organisms, causing irritation and sometimes displacement.

In order to reduce it, the following are used [7]:

  • anti-noise treatments in the design and construction technology of new power equipment,
  • rational location of buildings and machinery,
  • rational location of rooms in power plant facilities,
  • increasing the acoustic absorption of rooms, as well as improving the insulation of building partitions,
  • additional anti-noise treatments directly at noise-emitting sources,
  • protection of operating positions,
  • individual protective measures,
  • proper operation and maintenance of equipment and safeguards.

An alternative may be the development of technologies that produce sounds of lower intensity. An example of this is photovoltaics. Solar panels operate silently, and the inverter for a typical home installation produces sounds quieter than a whisper. Sources of noise on photovoltaic farms are transformers and inverters. In this case, the sound power level is about 55 dB(A) for the transformer and as high as 60 db(A) (in a central system) and 55 db(A) (in a distributed system) for the inverter. Thus, given the location of PV power plants, acceptable environmental noise levels will not be exceeded. The impact of PV plants on the acoustic climate should therefore be considered positive.

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Environmental benefits of solar energy – summary

The presented characterization of the environmental benefits of solar energy development clearly shows that the installation of photovoltaics helps our environment and improves the quality of life for people and animals. The impact can be considered in three segments:

  • direct,
  • alternative,
  • indirect.

Burning fossil fuels involves huge emissions. The construction of RES plants replaces power plants in terms of producing electricity for homes, businesses or public entities. The reduction of carbon dioxide and other substances in this case is enormous. The construction of PV farms also increases the chances of preserving nature’s biodiversity, especially in terms of pollinating insects and plants. In addition to this direct impact on the environment, PV reduces alternative measures that will not need to be taken after the widespread transition to green technologies. Climate change is accelerated by, for example, methane emissions from mines. It should also not be forgotten that PV installations do not emit harmful noise, and reduce waste generation. And the latter in the case of coal-fired power plants can be very high. Photovoltaics also bring indirect benefits to the environment. Power plants or mines require continuous transportation services, for example, for the delivery of raw materials or waste disposal. The combustion of fuels in engines produces emissions that could be avoided if energy were produced by environmentally friendly technologies instead of processes in generators.

In examining the environmental impact of photovoltaics, the cost cannot be forgotten. Skeptics of the energy transition emphasize that the problem is the manufacturing process and the silicon waste generated. At this point, it is worth noting that generators are subject to scrutiny for the further management of the residue and must comply with legal regulations. Technologies for further use of the waste have also already been developed, so that the real environmental impact at this stage is minimal.

Environmental benefits of solar energy vs Recycling of solar panels

The most questionable issue is the recycling of used solar panels. In Poland, photovoltaics is at an early stage of development, so this issue is not yet urgent. New methods of recycling PV equipment are currently being researched to be 100% environmentally friendly. For example, researchers at the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University have developed a sustainable method for extracting silicon from end-of-life PV modules and turning it into nanosilicon, which can be used in the production of high-energy anodes for lithium-ion batteries. At the same time, it should be emphasized that there are already companies in our country that perform the corresponding procedures of removing the frame, cables and junction box. Made of aluminum, glass, plastic, copper, silver and silicon, the panels are cut and crushed at a further stage, and later sent to separate recycling streams. In this way, the negative impact of the green energy transition is virtually minimized.

The environmental benefits of solar energy production are indisputable, which is why the demand for the construction of new RES units is promoted and accepted by all countries around the world.

 

 

Sources:

[1] Scenario 3. For pre-consultation of the NAPE/PEP2040 update, Ministry of Climate and Environment, p. 5.

[2] Green Economy Indicators in Poland 2022, CSO.

[3] Data from the Energy Market Agency, December 2022.

[4] Studies show that the waters of the coal-bearing formation are mineralized, and 30 substances have been found in them, the contents of which exceed many times the highest legal limits for water from the dewatering of mining plants. These include iron, boron, chlorides or sulfates.

[5] Montag, G. Parker, T. Clarkson, The effects of solar farms on local diversity: a comparative study, accessed at https://helapco.gr/wp-content/uploads/Solar_Farms_Biodiversity_Study.pdf

[6] Blaydes, S. G. Potts, D. Whyatt, A. Armstrong, Opportunities to enhance pollinator biodiversity in solar parks.

[7] Michalak, Selected aspects of the environmental impact of power plants.

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