Here are some points to consider based on personal observation and experience.
Solar is renewable. Unlike coal, there are no dangerous abandoned mines remaining once the mine is no longer profitable. With strip mining, mining companies remove whole mountain tops, scarring the land.
Solar technology generates little pollution. Most of the pollution is created during the manufacturing processes for the components of the system like the panels, wiring, and inverters. No environmental pollutants are caused by solar electricity generation. This is unlike coal or oil. These fossil fuels create massive amounts of pollution in several ways. The transport of these fuels to generating plants is one source. The burning of the fossil materials emits dangerous gases into the air. Simply observe the smokestacks at generating plants. Moreover, waste from the production of electricity such as ash in the case of coal-fired plants has to be disposed of in some way. It is toxic waste. Eventually, this waste works itself into the environment. Storms such as hurricanes and heavy rains flood the storage basins, breeching them. This causes massive environmental disasters. The toxic residue leeches into the water table or contaminates streams and rivers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a total assessment of all the pollution fossil energy causes from start to finish. Reason and observation rightly conclude that minimizing the use of fossil energy such as coal will have many environmental benefits.
Solar energy produces jobs. Certainly, as solar is used and energy consumption becomes more efficient, jobs in the fossil fuel industries will decrease. But jobs in the fossil fuel industries have been dropping for a long time. After World War II, home heating in large part changed from coal to oil, gas, or electric. I recall as a young boy stoking the coal furnace in the basement and banking the fire at night. Although fun for a kid to do, it was dirty work and took time and skill. Coal was expensive, too. Mining, transport, storage at the coal dealers, and home delivery were all costly.
Railroad conversion of locomotives from coal to diesel fuel after World War II caused even more of a drop in demand. The poverty-stricken towns and hamlets in the Pennsylvania anthracite fields bear testimony to this conversion. The jobs in energy production transformed and moved. But the miners, paid as minimally as the mine owners could, were in many, many cases unable to afford to move or had lived for generations in the coal fields and simply couldn’t leave home. While unions, especially the United Mine Workers, helped miners with bread-and-butter issues, the unions had no control over the fall in demand or the increased use of massive power drills to excavate the coal. As it was, demand shifted to large-scale power plants. This, too, reduced the need for miners. Despite this, there is an abiding sense of identity of many people in the coal hills for the days of anthracite.
Coal-fired electric plants are hazardous, not just to the environment, but to workers as well. During a semester break, I worked in the Reading Railroad electrical powerplant. The plant supplied electrical power to the locomotive, car, track, and storage shops in Reading, PA.
Coal is rated on cleanliness properties. Clean coal is coal that burns almost completely with little ash. It’s high in carbon content and low in shale, clay, and other non-combustible material. When the coal was clean, as measured in the railroad’s chemistry lab, it burned so well that there was little ash to shovel.
When the coal wasn’t clean, it burned at lower temperatures and left “clinkers” that were large, hard, compacted chunks of semi-burned material. Removing these was back-breaking, even for a nineteen-year-old college student in good shape. In winter, coal froze in the coal cars. At 100 tons, the cars could be difficult to unload. Normally, doors at the bottom of the car are released and the coal tumbles onto a conveyor belt and then automatically feed into the furnace. When it’s very cold, however, the frozen coal has to be manually pried out of the car using heavy iron bars. Once that was done, it was back inside the powerplant to remove ashes. The cold/hot contrast damaged several of my teeth with thin fractures.
Working 16 hours a day for 28 straight days enabled me to earn enough money to pay more than a years’ tuition. I also learned powerful lessons. Solar has none of this drama.
As a kid, I sometimes played on a “Swinging Bridge” that crossed the railroad yard in Reading. The bridge linked Sixth Street with Eighth Street. Steam engines were still used in the 1950s as the fleet was gradually replaced with diesel locomotives. When a steam engine passed under the bridge, the engineer often opened the throttle to release a huge plume of smoke to coat kids like me with a layer of soot. The trick was to play chicken by waiting as long as possible before running to escape the blast. Great fun, but it was poor environmental practice that could lead to much parental displeasure.
Solar can and will reduce unemployment. Solar components can be manufactured in areas of enduring unemployment. It’s not like coal where mining can only take place where there are accessible coal veins. Transporting and installing solar components offers yet more employment opportunities that range from low to high skilled. These opportunities will be considered in Part 2 of this post in the coming weeks. --Don’t stay in the dark!