10 facts you probably didn't know about solar energy

Solar panels

Randy Montoya, Sandia Labs, flickr

Whether or not we take quantifiable steps to fight the causes of climate change will define our generation and determine our future.

Switching to clean energy sources like solar power can help combat climate change and when built in the right places, ensure that our wildlands and natural resources persist for generations to come.

Clean energy not only makes America more economically and environmentally secure, it also reduces our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and offers our precious wildlands greater protections by providing alternatives to oil and gas drilling and coal mining. Whereas fossil fuels will eventually run out or become too expensive to retrieve, renewable energy resources are constantly replenished.

Top 10 solar energy facts

  1. Solar energy is the most abundant energy resource on earth – 173,000 terawatts of solar energy strikes the Earth continuously. That's more than 10,000 times the world's total energy use.
  2. Today, demand for solar in the United States is at an all time high. In the first quarter of 2012, developers installed 85 percent more solar panels compared to the first quarter of last year. Total U.S. installations may reach 3,300 megawatts this year – putting the country on track to be the fourth largest solar market in the world.
  3. Solar energy emits much fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. A special report by the International Panel on Climate Change's Working Group III examined hundreds of estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, and compiled the results of the most thorough studies. Their results showed that renewable energy has a substantially lower impact than fossil fuels over the lifespan of each power source.
  4. Expanding solar power is essential to meet climate goals. The International Energy Agency illustrated what changes would need to be made in the energy sector to limit global warming to 2°C from the pre-industrial level, based on "the climate sensitivity of the planet" that "scientists believe most likely." In that scenario, solar energy exhibits the "fastest growth," providing "more than 10% of global electricity by 2050."
  5. Our public lands play a large role in expanding the U.S. renewable energy supply. Along with state and private lands, public lands harbor substantial wind, solar and geothermal resources. Development is not appropriate everywhere on public lands. Degraded lands close to roads and transmission lines are preferred development locations that will result in fewer environmental impacts.
  6. Using solar energy produces no air or water pollution and no greenhouse gases, but may have some indirect negative impacts on the environment. For example, there are some toxic materials and chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process of photovoltaic cells (PV), which convert sunlight into electricity. Some solar thermal systems use potentially hazardous fluids to transfer heat. U.S. environmental laws regulate the use and disposal of these types of materials.
  7. By following the steps of avoiding sensitive areas, reducing impacts on project sites and offsetting unavoidable impacts, renewable energy development on public lands can limit impacts while providing clean energy benefits.
  8. Solar energy technologies continue to advance at a record pace. The solar market is also gaining momentum as evidenced by the latest jobs report from the Solar Foundation, which showed that the solar industry is creating jobs six times faster than the overall job market.
  9. The first silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices, was built by Bell Laboratories in 1954. On page one of its April 26, 1954 issue, The New York Times proclaimed the milestone, “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams -- the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”
  10. The space industry was an early adopter of solar technology. In the 1960s the space industry began to use solar technology to provide power aboard spacecrafts. The Vanguard 1 -- the first artificial earth satellite powered by solar cells -- remains the oldest manmade satellite in orbit – logging more than 6 billion miles.

Solar energy work we're doing

Solar development on public lands offers many benefits, from reducing the threat of climate change to creating green jobs. Large-scale projects can have serious impacts on the land, however, so it is important that they be built in the right places and the right ways. By focusing development in smart places and off-setting or mitigating the impacts, we can:

  • Protect wildlands and sensitive wildlife habitat.
  • Facilitate responsible development by taking advantage of nearby existing roads and power lines. This makes development faster, cheaper and better for the environment, solar developers and consumers.
  • Restore and repair damaged wildlands and wildlife habitats in areas where renewable energy development is occurring.

The Wilderness Society continues to work in collaboration with:

  • Conservation partners at regional and national organizations. 
  • Solar developers. 
  • Government agencies, including the BLM and Department of Energy. 
  • Utilities that manage the power grid and deliver power to consumers.