The sustainability of home solar depends on the overall impact of home solar compared to the impact of utility-provided power. The worse your local utility’s energy is, the greater the impact of switching to solar.
Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a powerful tool for determining whether or not something is sustainable. LCA looks at the different environmental impacts a process has throughout its entire life cycle: material sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use, and end-of-life. LCA can be conducted for home solar vs. utility energy to determine the overall environmental impact of each. Emissions and material use are the two biggest life cycle impacts related to home solar. Land use is an important impact to consider for utility solar.
Life Cycle Analysis of Solar: Carbon Emissions
A life cycle analysis published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2013 concluded that solar photovoltaic systems emit between 0.07 and 0.18 pounds of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) is a federal body which publishes a great resource for determining the environmental impact of utility power across the United States. View the EIA state explorer to find your state’s energy portfolio. In Florida, the EIA estimates that the production of a kilowatt-hour of energy emits 0.971 pounds of CO2.
Therefore, a home solar installation can decrease your carbon footprint by 0.8-0.9 pounds per kWh.
You can look at your utility bill to determine how many kWh you consume in a typical month. According to EIA, the average Florida energy customer purchases 14,500 kWh of energy per year.
Therefore, by going solar, the average Florida energy customer can offset about 11,000 pounds of carbon per year. This is equivalent to planting about two acres of forest.
Sustainability of Solar: Manufacturing & Materials
The material requirement of solar is one area in which fossil fuels outperform solar in terms of sustainability. PV solar panels require the use of rarer and more dangerous materials compared to fossil fuels. However, even with this disparity, studies have demonstrated that the overall negative impact that would be seen with widespread adoption of solar is much lower than that of fossil fuels.
Home Solar Sustainability Conclusion
Based on this analysis, it is clear that home solar is a sustainable option for generating electricity. In fact, going solar is one of the easiest things you can do to dramatically decrease your carbon footprint while improving your quality of life (since solar will also save you money).
So why doesn’t everyone have solar already? Primarily, it comes down to education. Most people simply don’t know that they can install solar and save money on day one.