Can Solar Energy Improve Water Quality?

Solar energy is everywhere. Solar-powered sunglasses can be used to charge your cell phone, you can get solar powered book bags, lights on roads are solar powered, and even showers now can get their power from the sun. The rise in both the portability and the availability of solar has helped the price to drop pretty sharply.

The price drop makes solar available to more people. The simple process of letting your sunglasses charge up to power your cell phone probably won’t affect the water in your area. But moving onto bigger areas can. It can change things and make a difference for your area.

Less Water Than Fossil Fuels

As we continue to experience the effects of climate change and population growth, we’re forcing ourselves to survive in a world with limited resources. Freshwater is one of those, and its limits are coming up fast. Poor water management and building practices have put many cities at risk of running out of fresh water, including Miami, Florida, despite it getting some of the most rain in the U.S.

That alone speaks volumes about the shortage we’re facing. The use of excess water when it isn’t necessary needs to stop as soon as it’s possible. Solar, like most other green energy options, doesn’t use water at all to generate electricity. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, use water for almost every aspect of their electricity generation.

Less Contamination

This drop in water use means there’s less chance for contamination. Even within their use, there is still less option for contamination of waterways. The water that is used, even with the manufacturing process, has less risk of pollution than oil drilling, even though some of the materials used are highly toxic. This has become an increasingly important consideration as water quality has made headlines in many areas of the U.S. Flint, Michigan was the first significant call to action, but other cities also deal with contaminated water.

The worse the water is, the higher the opportunity for water-borne infections. We are aware of and know how to treat many of these diseases such as Legionnaire’s Disease, but we are struggling to make sure the water quality is safe. Aging infrastructure is a part of the problem, but the sheer volume of pollutants released into the water supply is a bigger one.

Manufacturing Issues

While solar doesn’t use water once it’s installed and in use, the manufacturing process is different. Most green technology requires water during production. The main “ingredient” in solar panels is silicon, which is an abundant resource on our planet and can be manufactured. However, it has to be mined, melted, cut and transformed from a block into a panel. Each one of those steps requires gallons of water. Once the panels are installed, if the solar is limited to just the energy generation by the panels themselves, then the water use is almost zero. They do still have to be washed though, especially those that are in bright, sandy areas like the desert.

The bigger issue is that the manufacturing process, like most others, puts the excess water at risk of contamination. That results in less clean water overall, even though it’s a significantly better option than many of the other processes we have available for energy generation.

Using Solar Means Less Water

Even though solar production is not a water-free affair, it’s still a good option. When you compare it to any fossil fuel production or even nuclear power, the water use is substantially lower. Coal-fired plants use over 15,500 gallons of water for each megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity they produce. Nuclear doesn’t use quite as much but is still high, coming in at over 14,700 gallons of water per MWh. By contrast, the solar panels on your roof use water when you’re cleaning them off a few times a year.

But those aren’t the only kinds of solar panels that are used. To make solar widespread, concentrating solar thermal plants are used, which is essentially a solar panel farm on steroids. Those have to use water. Otherwise, the heat they generate would cause the technology to melt. Those plants require about 600 gallons of water per MWh, which is far above the zero it takes for your home panels. It’s still far under the 15,500 that traditional methods use, but it would be best to get it lower.

On top of the traditional methods of maintaining temperatures within solar plants, there is a way to reduce water use. Dry cooling options can reduce water use by up to 90 percent, but it becomes less effective at temperatures over 100 degrees F. It also isn’t as efficient as traditional cooling methods using more water, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Even with its drawbacks, solar power is still one of the most widely available, water-reducing options for energy that we have available. Furthermore, local and federal tax credits can usually help reduce installation costs by about 30 percent, making solar a more affordable option for many.

With the dwindling fresh water supply being further threatened by climate change, we need change, and we need it now.

Photo by Antonio Garcia on Unsplash

Emily Folk
Emily Folk
Emily is a freelance conservation and sustainability journalist. based in Lancaster, PA

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