What defines renewable energy? You’re not alone if you’re asking this question as you consider going solar. Let’s dig into what it means and why it matters.
Is solar energy renewable?
To answer this question, let’s start with a few definitions.
- Solar energy — energy from the sun’s rays (solar radiation)
- Electricity — the flow of electric charge
- Photovoltaic Effect — the process that converts sunlight into electricity
If you see where this is going you’ve probably also read How Solar Works, which explains how electricity is produced by a solar system. Here we’ll summarize at a high level: solar panels use the photovoltaic effect to transform the sun’s energy into electricity.
Now, let’s look at the two main types of energy sources:
Nonrenewable energy comes from sources that cannot be replaced or can only be replenished through extremely slow natural processes. Think: limited supply. Examples include fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, as well as nuclear energy.
Renewable energy comes from sources that can be easily and naturally replenished. Essentially, they cannot be depleted. Examples include solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal.
So, we know that solar energy converts sunlight into energy and sunlight is a source we can’t diminish. Based on this, solar energy is a renewable energy source. The U.S. Energy Information Administration even calls solar the ultimate energy source because humans have been using the sun’s rays for thousands of years for warmth and to dry food (like meat, fruit and grains) without reducing any availability. In fact, it’s estimated that the amount of sunlight covering the earth in just an hour and a half is enough to power the entire world for a full year (if we were to capture it all)!
How green is solar power?
When we talk about how green an energy source is, we look at the effects created when we use it. Generally, non-renewable energy sources have to be refined or burned to produce electricity, which creates greenhouse emissions. In 2020, the EPA estimated almost three-fourths of human-caused emissions came from burning fossil fuels alone. Greenhouse gas emissions add huge amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to our atmosphere, trapping heat and causing Earth’s temperature to rise. This leads to climate change and the intense heat waves, uncontrollable wildfires and storms we’re experiencing worldwide with alarming frequency.
On the other hand, solar energy gets a green stamp of approval according to the U.S. voluntary market. But what exactly makes solar energy green? Remember the photovoltaic process that converts sunlight to electricity? During that process, no carbon emissions are created, earning solar energy a green power reputation.
Having said that, we should also consider the materials we use to harvest and store solar energy, like solar panels and home batteries. Simply put, there’s a carbon footprint involved in manufacturing and disposing of these products. While still far less impactful than nonrenewable energy, it’s important that the solar industry continues to innovate and improve. Find out more by checking out Why is Solar Energy Renewable?
Want to learn more about going solar and converting to renewable energy? Talk with a Baker Solar Energy Expert today.