Danielle Austin - 29 Apr, 2020

Solar Energy: Solution for climate change?

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Following Australia’s recent Black Summer bushfires, which saw around 21% of Australian temperate broadleaf and mixed forests burnt and over one billion animals killed, the climate change debate has found itself in headlines across the globe.

According to the Climate Council, the extended bushfire season and increase in extreme weather events was a combined result of climate change and the effects of years of reduced rainfall and severe drought alongside extremely hot, dry conditions that have been caused by our planet’s rising temperature.

The bushfires themselves were also devastating for climate control. The Climate Council of Australia estimates that the Black Summer fires released a further 650 million to 1.2 billion tones of carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere. By comparison, Australia’s annual emissions are around 531 million tonnes.

Awareness of climate change has steadily increased in recent years, and thanks to the 2016 Paris Agreement, more than ever countries are being held accountable for their roles in the battle against climate change. Around the world, countries are playing their part in reversing climate change, with renewable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions playing a large role.

In Australia, and around the world, solar energy is being embraced as a key factor in the fight against climate change, with investments being made in the solar energy industry. Over 2 million Australian households already use solar energy to generate electricity.

Sweden has set a target to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation, making their generated energy 100% renewable by 2040 and Denmark aims to do the same by 2050, while Costa Rica aims to become carbon neutral by 2020.

But how does Australia stack up on a global scale?

How will solar energy make homes sustainable?

What is solar energy?

Solar power is created when energy from the sun is converted into electricity. Unlike traditional fossil fuels – coal, natural gas and oil – solar energy is generated at a molecular level and therefore releases no emissions.

Solar energy is also an inexhaustible resource. Estimates predict that based on our current usage, we have only 114 years of coal, 53 years of natural gas and 50 years of oil resources left to tap into. Once those resources are depleted it would take millions of years to regenerate the amount of fossil fuels that we consumer in just a couple hundred years.

The extraction of fossil fuels and the use of fossil fuels both contribute to carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the most hazardous and predominant greenhouse gas on our plant, and along with a number of other gases in our atmosphere, it creates the ‘greenhouse effect’ that keeps the planet at a temperature that can sustain life. As levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase, the greenhouse effect increases too, trapping more heat in and raising the temperature. By using more clean solar energy we reduce the need for fossil fuels and dramatically decrease the levels of carbon dioxide emissions being released into the atmosphere.

What are carbon emissions and solar energy?

Most often, solar power is created through a solar photovoltaic (PV) cell which converts sunlight into electricity. The glass-encased panels typically seen on house roofs are an example of solar PV cells, but the same technology can also be transformed into large-scale solar farming. More than 21% of Australian households have rooftop solar PV panels, the highest rate of household solar panel installation in the world.

Related: Make your home sustainable

The costs of solar energy

While only ten years ago the cost of installing domestic solar power panels was out of reach for the average household, they are becoming more viable for many homeowners. The cost of installing solar power in the home has dramatically declined over the past decade. This is due to a decrease in the cost of production, largely thanks to Chinese production and hyper-competition, and an increase in government financial incentives for renewable energy.

A good quality 3kW solar energy system needs around 9-12 solar panels to produce around 13 units of energy each day, and will cost between $5,000 to $8,000 in Australia (including installation). For a 5kW system, around 14-20 panels are needed to produce roughly 22 units of energy each day, with the system costing $5,000 to $9,000.

The Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme provides a financial incentive for people considering installing solar energy systems. Under the scheme owners of eligible small-scale renewable energy systems may receive an upfront discount on the cost of their system, or elect to hold a quantity of small-scale technology certificates that can be sold following installation. The certificates are calculated on the amount of energy generated by the system and are required to be bought by Renewable Energy Target liable entities. Until 2031, system owners can receive one small-scale technology certificate for every megawatt-hour of electricity generated by their solar system.

The benefits of solar energy

Solar power is presented as an environmentally friendly alternative to other energy sources. By utilising solar energy, we can reduce our need for fossil fuels and therefore decrease the associated carbon dioxide emissions and reduce our national carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.

One Australian household with a 6.6kW solar power system has the capacity to generate over 11,000 watt-hours of clean solar energy each year. This amount reduces the emissions of around 9.5 tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of planting 35 trees each year.

As a solar power system owner there may also be some financial benefits. While there are ongoing discounts on energy bills, having energy-saving home features like a solar energy system also been found to increase the value of your property by as much as 5 to 10%.

The solar PV panels are also built to a minimum standard to last at least 25 years. While the initial expense of installing a solar system is costly, the benefits are long term.

Related: Green property dream: energy efficient home attract 10% higher prices

Solar power for climate control around the world

Rises in global temperatures and sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather events, among other symptoms of climate change, have all been directly linked to carbon dioxide emissions around the world. Renewable energy presents an alternative energy source that does not produce harmful carbon emissions in its generation, but Australia is lagging behind in its action to climate change.

Many countries have introduced incentive schemes similar to Australia to encourage the installation of renewable energy systems, but countries like Germany and the United Kingdom are leading the way with effective climate policies.

Germany is leading the way in carbon emissions reductions in industrialised nations, having achieved a 35.7% emission reduction since 1990. In 2019, the country effectively reduced its emissions by 6.3% on the previous year. Germany also successfully closed its last black coal mine in late 2018, even as Australia continues to open new coal mines.

Generating clean energy looks different around the world. In Scotland energy is better harnessed from the wind, while in Kenyah regions that don’t have access to electricity use portable solar lanterns as an alternative to kerosene lamps or candles. The nation is also looking to geothermal energy as a long term solution to reduce its costly electrical imports.

Household solar power systems provide a very real way for individuals to play a part in the climate change battle, as well a presenting some tangible financial benefits. In Australia, we receive an average of 58 million petajoules of solar radiation each year, an amount that is roughly 10,000 times more than our total energy consumption.

Words by Danielle Austin

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