Can Solar Energy Reduce Global Temperatures by Harnessing Sunlight?
Solar energy does have the potential to reduce global temperatures, though, in order to make any impact, it would need to be used more frequently and replace the use of traditional fossil fuels. In 2011, 0.5 percent of the world’s energy came from solar energy, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. By comparison, in 2013, the World Energy Council reported 80 percent of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels.
Global Temperature Rise
When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere. Though carbon dioxide has the ability to escape the atmosphere, it happens at a slower rate than it is reintroduced through the burning of fossil fuels. The growing global population has led to an increased energy demand, which will lead to an increase in energy consumption and will inevitably lead to an increase in global temperatures. If solar energy were used in place of fossil fuels, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by up to 90 percent. Unlike fossil fuel, solar energy doesn’t release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and therefore, doesn’t contribute to the global temperature rise. Global temperatures could actually decline as more carbon dioxide may leave the atmosphere through plants and outer-space than was generated through energy consumption.
Urban Heat Index
The Urban Heat Index (UHI), or the heat island phenomenon, is the increased temperature in urban areas caused by human activities. Primarily, the UHI is caused by changes in land usage. The secondary cause of UHI is the generation of waste heat by electricity usage. The UHI effect can range anywhere from one to six degrees higher from neighboring rural areas in the daytime, and can hit 22 degrees higher during the night. Solar energy can reduce the effects of the UHI by blocking the amount of heat absorbed by a building and the other materials in urban landscapes. This can cause an increased need for additional energy consumption during the winter, but in turn, reduces the need for air conditioning in the summer. Global climates that experience mild winters and hotter summers may benefit the most from the installation of solar energy technologies.
Current Solar Energy Technology
Three types of solar energy technology are presently utilized, including concentrated solar energy (CSE), solar thermal energy and photovoltaic systems, more commonly known as solar panels. Concentrated solar energy and solar thermal energy both use mirrors to direct the sun’s energy onto a receiver, which then transfers the energy to a carrier medium, which is heated, and then drives a steam turbine. Solar panels generate electricity when particles of light, known as photons, remove electrons from the atoms on the photovoltaic cells in the solar panels. All three types of solar energy technology are produced using heavy metals and fossil fuels during the manufacturing process, which negatively impact the global temperature rise.
Global climates with high levels of annual precipitation or those subject to overcast conditions could lack the ability to generate enough solar energy to meet their needs, which would require them to rely on fossil fuels or an alternate energy source to make up the difference. Solar energy can’t be generated at night. Countries at higher latitudes with less sunlight in the winter may not be viable candidates for solar power year-round and need to investigate alternatives. As a whole, the components used to generate solar energy are more expensive than those used to generate energy from fossil fuels. Ultimately, though solar energy has the potential to reduce the overall global temperature, it isn’t likely enough countries could afford to convert from burning fossil fuels to make a large enough impact.
About the author
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.