Solar energy in Australia: health and environmental costs and benefits

by Jeremy Moss, Alicia Coram and Grant Blashki

Australia has some of the best conditions in the world for producing solar energy, and new research suggests it is also the nation’s preferred future energy option.

This paper considers various advantages and disadvantages of harnessing energy from the sun.  It finds the health and environmental impacts of solar to be minimal in comparison to fossil fuels, and argues that, as the cost of gas begins to rise, solar will become an increasingly competitive and valuable energy source.

It is estimated that solar energy could produce up to 60 per cent of Australia’s energy needs, which would dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Public polling by The Australia Institute shows solar is the most popular energy choice of the future, with 63 per cent of people ranking it as their number one preferred energy choice, and 90 per cent of people ranking it within their top three preferences.

This stands in strong contrast to coal and coal seam gas (CSG), which were listed among the top three energy sources by a mere 35 and 38 per cent of Australians respectively.

Fossil fuel derived energy sources such as coal and CSG have been widely criticised for their environmental and health impacts. Six out of 10 Australians consider coal and CSG to have a detrimental effect on the landscape, while only a fraction of that – 13 per cent – share the same concern in relation to solar energy.

Despite the favourable conditions and strong public support, Australia currently only produces world-average levels of solar energy. With the high potential for solar expansion in Australia, it is important to determine the costs and benefits of this energy source. 

Overall, the health risks for workers in the solar sector are considerably less than for those in the fossil fuel industries. While the paper discusses some health risks associated with the manufacturing of solar photovoltaic material, these are likely to lessen over time as further improvements are made in the technology used.

There are only minimal environmental impacts in harnessing solar energy. Despite the need for large land surface areas, there is little evidence that solar resources conflict with other land uses such as farming. Additionally, community benefits can accrue from both large and small scale solar projects, such as jobs in remote areas.

Overall, solar energy is found to have minimal health and environmental impacts, particularly when compared with fossil fuels. The public desire for harnessing Australia’s solar resources is strong, with 90 per cent of people wanting more solar energy, and it is predicted to become an increasingly cost-effective energy source as the technology improves.

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