If you’ve ever thought about going solar, chances are that you’ve primarily got your pocketbook in mind. In the last 15 years, the prices of solar equipment and installation have dropped dramatically, and people all across the world are starting to take advantage. To be certain, these favorable economics are the reason for solar’s monumental growth in recent years. In this article, however, we’re going to take a step back from economics to think about another hugely important driver of solar and other renewable energy sources: The concept of sustainability.
Sustainability is what it sounds like: the idea that we should conduct our lives in a way in which we can sustain for generations to come. Sustainability is about making sure that we’re leaving the Earth as a good place for our children, grandchildren, and so on, so that they may lead happy, healthy and productive lives. When our actions are not sustainable, the implication is that we’ll need to change our ways at some point in the future, whether it’s because we’ve depleted resources, damaged our environment, or jeopardized our health.
- Extracting oil and natural gas from the ground: Not sustainable.
- Setting fire to the amazon rainforest to create more space for livestock and agriculture: Not sustainable.
- Producing massive amounts of garbage that ends up getting deposited in landfills: Not sustainable.
- Relying on combustion fuel power plants that create harmful emissions and endanger surrounding communities? Not sustainable.
The idea behind sustainability is not to be perfect, but to replace some of our habits that are not sustainable with better practices. These might be small fixes, or they may be slightly larger in scale, but the important thing is that they’re steps in the right direction. It’s never easy to make these types of changes in our lives. After all, as of 2019, there are 7.7 billion people living on Earth. Realistically, we may never be able to achieve true sustainability, but we can certainly do better than we’re doing now.
However, sustainability does not necessarily mean that we need to sacrifice economic development, only that we need to be smart about how we develop. This is especially true when it comes to sustainability in the energy sector. A full-scale overhaul of our electricity system would not only be the most sustainable thing to do, but it would also create millions of good-paying jobs. According to a recent article from Forbes, there are already 3.3 Americans employed in the renewable energy sector. That means that renewable energy workers outnumber fossil fuel workers by three to one. If we collectively decided to transition to the most sustainable energy system possible, we’d create a huge number of stable, high paying jobs, particularly for blue-collar workers.
Another facet of sustainability is that we should live in harmony with our environment to whatever extent possible. That means conserving our wilderness spaces, respecting our natural resources, and reducing pollution as much as possible. It also means finding creative ways to promote a healthy planet, while still marching forward and progressing as a species.
One excellent example of this idea put into practice is described below. Some solar farm developers are now planting pollinator-friendly grasses and flowers in the fields that house the solar arrays. This is a brilliant idea for a couple of reasons. For one, it encourages a healthy ecosystem. Pollinators are extremely important for propagating the plants which anchor the local food chains. Planting these local species of the ground cover serves to increase the habitat of the pollinators.
The other benefit of this strategy is that covering the ground beneath the solar arrays with plants creates a cooler micro-climate around the panels. The plants soak up some of the sun rays and use that energy for photosynthesis, and so there is less heat energy being absorbed by the ground. This slightly cooler micro-climate can actually make the solar system more efficient, by providing a better operating environment. Solar cells work better in colder conditions, due to the inverse relationship between temperature and voltage. In hotter temperatures, voltage decreases, and therefore less power is produced. The boosts in efficiency created by this process of planting flowers and grasses around solar farms are marginal, but when you’re dealing with thousands of panels over the course of 20 or 30 years, small boosts in efficiency can add up to significant increases over the life of the systems.
Practices like this show that when we apply a little brainpower, we can develop solutions that allow us to live more sustainably, while not inhibiting societal progress. This can be a difficult line to walk, but humans have shown their ability time and time again to solve difficult problems. As long as we’re pointed in the right direction, there’s always hope that we can use our skills of innovation to create a better world.