Environmental Benefits of Solar Power in Colorado

Dense forests, stunning mountain ranges, and sprawling plains characterize Colorado, a state known throughout the country for its scenic landscape and rugged environment. From the first pioneers who set their eyes on the Rocky Mountains to recent transplants new to the state, Colorado has always represented a vast wilderness to explore and enjoy.

If you’ve ever gazed upward from a hiking trail toward a looming snow-covered mountain peak, or stumbled across a field full of grazing deer, you understand the appeal of the state – and the need to protect those elements that many hold sacred.

Colorado’s natural beauty and environment relies on a delicate balance that is increasingly at risk of derailment due to continued use of fossil fuels, their contribution to global warming and the hazards associated with the extraction of these fuels.

Colorado and Global Warming

Burning fossil fuels gives off a number of emissions that increase the threat of global warming. In Colorado, warming temperatures could drastically change the environment in the state as we see it today. Some potential impacts include:

  • Decreased soil moisture and crop production
  • Earlier snowmelt and shorter ski season
  • Decrease in stream flow and water reserves
  • Increased threat of pine beetle outbreak
  • More frequent heat waves
  • Changes in animal wildlife and activity

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Currently, 90% of electricity in Colorado is produced from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. When burned, these fuels emit greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, which not only worsen air quality, but also add to global warming’s impact on the environment.

In Colorado, this could mean lighter snow falls, increased threats of droughts, and higher risks of forest fires – damaging many of the natural features that attract residents to the state in the first place.

However, our reliance on fossil fuels for energy doesn’t need to be permanent. In fact, the Colorado solar industry is experiencing historic gains that could reduce many of the negative environmental impacts that years of fossil fuel use have caused.

In 2012 alone, more than 49,000 Colorado residents installed solar panels on their homes, generating 69.9 megawatts of power. If more people continued to switch to solar power, it could mean cleaner air, more abundant and usable water, and the protection of Colorado’s scenic environment.

Cleaner air for Colorado

All electricity-generating technologies emit pollutants and emissions during their life cycles, but solar and other renewable energy sources are unique in that they emit very little.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the only emissions associated with solar technologies occur during their construction – and those levels are still quite low compared to fossil fuels. During the life cycle of a solar panel, it will only emit 0.07 pounds of CO2 per kWh, compared to coal at 2.10 pounds and natural gas at 1.12 pounds per kWh.

When higher levels of CO2 are expelled into the atmosphere, it warms temperatures, which in turn increases the effects of air pollution from fossil fuel-fired power generation, such as smog.

The Environmental Protection Agency notes that breathing in smog can adversely affect the health of people and wildlife, potentially leading to:

  • Irritated respiratory systems
  • Reduced lung function
  • Increased risk of asthma
  • Damaged cell lining in the lungs

By installing more solar panels in Colorado, many of these risks can be greatly reduced. The organizations Vote Solar and Environment Colorado estimate that if Colorado generated 1,000 megawatts of electricity through solar, the combined emissions reduction could equate to taking nearly 670,000 cars off the road by 2030 – representing 30 million tons of carbon dioxide and 766,000 pounds of nitrous oxide.

Consider that in Colorado, there are 13 coal-fired power plants that emit 47 million tons of CO2 per year, in addition to thousands of natural gas wells. Reducing our reliance on these energy sources by generating higher levels solar electricity would help protect Colorado’s air quality and reduce the effects of global warming – which in turn would strengthen the state’s most precious resource: water.

Protecting our water supplies

Outside of the state’s tourism industry and aesthetic appeal, Colorado’s annual snow fall serves a very important purpose: supplying people and wildlife with the water they need to live.

However, temperatures in Colorado are slowly rising due to fossil fuel use, affecting the levels of snowpack that the state relies on for their water supplies. Early in April 2013, for example, water content in the South Platte River Basin, the principal source of water for eastern Colorado, was 29% below normal.

Given how precious Colorado’s water supply is to the wellbeing of the state, one would imagine its protection would be of the utmost importance. However, drilling from the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, industry uses vast amounts of water to uncover natural gas wells in the ground.

Fracking and Colorado’s Water Supply

Despite the industry’s assertion that burning natural gas is a much more positive practice compared to burning coal, fracking still has harmful effects on Colorado’s environment. Consider the following:

  • Water used annually in fracking could serve between 44,200 and 79,000 Colorado households.
  • Water used in fracking is 100% consumptive and cannot be returned to streams.
  • Fracking’s use of water equals one to two-thirds of total public supply and domestic water use.

Source: “Fracking our Future” Western Resource Advocates

Fracking projects have increased throughout Colorado rapidly as more natural gas reserves have been uncovered. Since 2010 for instance, more than 1,300 fracking wells have been permitted in Weld County, CO.

Now consider that, according to “For Farms in the West, Oil Wells are Thirsty Rivals,” published in The New York Times, a single fracking well can require five million gallons of water. For a state that’s already rated the seventh driest in the country, Colorado can’t afford to continually provide water to industries that produce dirty energy.

Fracking not only reduces the overall water supply, but could also damage the quality of it. Fracking relies on a chemical cocktail of water, acids, and detergents that are terribly harmful should they seep into drinking water.

Unlike fracking, generating solar energy doesn’t require the use of a limited, precious resource, and won’t pollute it either. If Colorado residents installed a combined 1,000 MW of solar power by 2030, it could save 6.8 billion gallons of water over the life of the panels, assuming solar displaces fracking projects.

More solar panels on Colorado roofs means not wasting water on a finite fuel like natural gas. Furthermore, offsetting greenhouse gases with solar power generation could help reduce the warmer temperatures in the state, leading to higher levels of snowpack once again.

Installing solar panels at your home or business

Increasing the number of solar panels in Colorado isn’t just a smart personal decision, but a responsible one in the face of challenges posed by global warming. Rising temperatures, worsening air quality, and a dwindling water supply can be reduced and even reversed if more Colorado residents abandoned fossil fuels and switched to solar energy.

If you’re interested in learning more about how solar power could not only benefit the environment, but also your energy costs and the local economy, consider contacting installers in your area.