(855) 321-7473

M-F 9am-5pm Eastern

Rooftop Solar Panels

How Rooftop Solar Panels Can Improve Air Quality

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Nov 5, 2020

A vital component of a sustainable home is healthy indoor air quality. Homeowners often spend large amounts of time searching for products that are either low-VOC or no-VOC - products that won't worsen the air they're breathing. It is essential to protect the air you breathe inside your home from low-VOC interior paint to natural mattress options to high-performance air purification technologies. Unfortunately, we don't have much control over the air quality outside our houses, and it could be seriously impacting our health.

A 2017 report by Simon Fraser University found that pollution (including air pollution) is responsible for an astounding 16 percent of deaths worldwide. Scientific studies continually confirm that particulate matter (PM) air pollution is increasing its negative impact on our health and is associated with a broader number of disease outcomes in recent years. Unless you live in a tiny cabin hidden in the mountains, the chances are that particulate matter air pollution will affect you and your family.

While solar panels are recognized as a renewable energy source, we seldom think of them as components of reducing public health risks. However, as solar power generation (both rooftop and commercial) increases, the less we will depend on the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel power not only releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses into the air, but it also is responsible for air pollution that directly affects the health of people around the country.

Utah Smog CDC
Utah Smog. Photo Credit: CDC

Issues Associated with Smog and Urban Air Quality 

When listening to the morning weather report on our way to work, the local meteorologist will most likely give forecasts for temperature, potential precipitation, and the day's air quality index. Air Quality Index, or AQI, is used by meteorologists and government agencies to determine how polluted it actually is. The higher the AQI, the more likely people will experience adverse health effects due to breathing in contaminated air.

The American Lung Association releases an annual report titled "State of the Air." The report found that more than forty-one percent of Americans live in areas where air pollution levels are often too dangerous for breathing in the United States. That adds up to almost 134 million Americans who live in counties where ozone pollution (connected to global climate change) and particulate matter pollution (mostly from exhaust smoke from cars, industries, and fossil fuel power plants) is an ongoing threat. On a global level, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.2 million deaths occur every year due to exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution. As a result of the increased urbanization of our society, 91 percent of the world's population now lives in places where air quality exceeds the WHO's guideline limits.

Coal Power Plant

As is the case with many health problems, exposure to air pollution reflects the economic and ethnic disparities across communities, with poorer people from minority groups more likely to suffer adverse health effects. Families with less wealth will most likely be those forced into living near power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels. Coal power plants release sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, which contribute to acid rain and the formation of harmful particulate matter. Many low-income families live near highways and interstates where particulate matter from vehicle exhaust can be a significant health danger.

Nerd Power Energy
Photo Credit: Nerd Power Energy

Can Solar Panels Help Reduce Urban Haze or Smog?

Our reliance on fossil fuels during the past centuries has dramatically impacted our atmosphere. Unfortunately, it has loaded the air we breathe with harmful emissions such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulate dust. Solar panels, on the other hand, have zero damaging emissions. By reducing our reliance on fossil fuel energy sources and switching to renewable solar generation, we can drastically reduce smog levels, particulate matter, air pollution, acid rain, and global climate change.

The United States currently has an installed capacity of 85 Gigawatts of solar energy. This capacity has increased dramatically - from about one million solar projects in 2016 to 16 million in 2020. While this might seem like a lot, this still only accounts for two percent of total energy generation in 2019. However, these solar energy projects are contributing to an enormous reduction in air pollution from fossil fuel-burning plants.

Sunny Sky

The 2014 report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) found that solar power generation from that year (which, as mentioned, has since significantly increased) could displace 18 billion pounds of coal or 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline. Rooftop solar PV systems can help homeowners reduce their dependence on the energy provided by local utility providers. For people who don't live in areas where rooftop PV panels are feasible, opting into a community solar arrangement can further reduce the demand for coal, natural gas, or oil power generation. This effort, of course, translates into lower amounts of particulate matter air pollution.

Add to that, increased solar power generation in urban areas also offers the potential of reducing particulate matter emissions from vehicles. In many large metropolitan areas across the country, the use of electric vehicles (EVs) is growing, and city governments are now beginning to install charging station infrastructure to power those vehicles. Harmful vehicle emissions from gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles are responsible for between 50 and 90 percent of air pollution. An increase in solar power production could radically improve urban air quality by providing a clean, renewable, and sustainable electricity source to power non-polluting vehicles.

Rooftop Solar

Improved urban air quality through the widespread adoption of rooftop solar panels would also enhance solar power generation efficiency. Studies have shown that smog and particulate matter pollution in urban areas diminish the effectiveness of solar panels. In some cities with high air pollution levels, solar panel electricity production can be diminished by between 12 and 16 percent

Of course, reducing air pollution by reducing reliance on gas and diesel vehicles and energy from fossil fuel-powered generation plants translates directly into immediate health benefits. In China, a study that analyzed replacing dirty coal-burning power plants in the eastern part of the country with solar power generation found that this would not only lead to the expected CO2 reductions but would also offer air quality-related health benefits. Specifically, the report found that by installing 400 GW of solar PV capacity by 2030, there would be a 1.2% decrease in air pollution-related premature deaths. 

Another benefit of switching to solar power energy is that this transition also reduces our collective demand for water. Unlike other renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric dams, biomass generators, and geothermal power plants, solar photovoltaic cells don't need water to generate electricity or to operate cooling towers.

Texas Community Solar

Bottom Line

If you want to know what the air quality index is in your region, go to the Air Now site and type in your zip code. Isn't it a sad day when we cannot play outside because of the damage we have done to our air? The more urban and suburban households who transition to producing renewable energy at home through a rooftop PV system, the better our urban air quality will become. Just another reason—on top of saving money on your electric bill—solar panels can be an excellent investment.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-19T18:31:53+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.