Throughout not only human history but all life on earth, there are but a few substances which are as integral and as important as water. This simple molecular structure, literally only three atoms at its most basic level, may be the one molecule that without nearly no life on the planet (with the exception of some extremophiles) could realistically be expected to survive. Even within the confines of human experience and recorded history, there is no doubt that the struggle for water, and in more modern times the struggle for clean water, has been the focus of a number of different conflicts and sources of inequality. Water is used for so much in our daily lives (and albeit to some degree, used in an unsustainable way) that losing access to a secure and renewable source would spell disaster.
For these reasons and many more, we are celebrating World Water Day on March 22, 2022. While perhaps there is an oversaturation of somewhat meaningless days of recognition (e.g. “Lima Bean Respect Day”, New York City’s Phish Day, etc.), World Water Day is an annual United Nations Observance. Akin to World Soil Day, this day is a coordination of both UN-Water and multiple members and partners from different parts of the world.
World Water Day was recognized in 1993 and focuses on the importance of water. The day also looks to raise awareness of the estimated 2 billion people who live everyday without access to clean and safe water. Through this focus on achieving clean water for nearly 25% of the world which does not have access, World Water Day helps to draw attention to Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. On March 22 every year, in coincidence with World Water Day, the UN World Water Development Report is made available to the public. This report shares the same annual theme as World Water Day and is largely focused on policy direction recommendation to global key decision makers.
Each year, World Water Day has a different theme or focus. Some past themes include Wastewater, Climate Change, Better Water, Better Jobs and other water-related topics. The topic for World Water Day 2022 is Groundwater—making the invisible visible. While many of us may not think about the groundwater on a daily basis plus its inability to be seen directly (hence, the figurative and literal invisibility), the impact of groundwater is visible everywhere. While in Indiana and Monroe County there are many different sources of water, in some of the driest and most arid areas of the world, groundwater may be the only source of water available. In fact, most of the water we use on a daily basis all over the planet is taken from the ground, including drinking water, sanitation systems, agriculture, and more.
The UN is choosing to focus on groundwater for many different reasons, primarily due to its overuse in many areas of the world. Groundwater is technically being overused when more water is taken from the ground than is refilled by precipitation (mainly rain and snow). In some areas, there is no way to know how much groundwater can be found in the aquifer, meaning that reckless use could totally deplete the resource.
There is also a focus on the pollution of groundwater and the costs it has to society. An externality arises when there is a situation where the social cost of a good outweighs the private costs. Negative externalities are a result of incomplete property rights, which results in the full cost of an action or good not being accurately reflected in the price of that action or good. Pollution is labeled an externality because there is a specific good or action—in the case of groundwater, those goods and actions include the run-off of gasoline, oil, road salt into the soil as well as the waste from mining sites, including coal—where the selling price does not include the social cost of that pollution. Because these costs are displaced is why an externality constitutes a market failure and a major incentive for government involvement. Government involvement in environmental pollution and harmful risks to human health are usually justified through the existence of pollution externalities.
Not only is pollution intrinsically a negative externality, it is incredibly tedious and expensive to remove from our groundwater once infiltrated. The necessity to filter and clean groundwater drives up the cost of processing and producing drinking water. There are many different potential sources of groundwater contamination which are not restricted to certain parts of the world or to developing countries. Many of these areas are found in our own backyard, and may include storage tanks, septic systems, landfills, chemical fertilizer and road salt run-off. In fact, due to the nature of the water cycle and water’s transformation from liquid to solid to gas, groundwater may even be contaminated through different pollutants in the air and atmosphere. The US Geological Survey has a complete list of specific contaminants to groundwater as well as likely sources of those contaminants you can check out here. Some of the notable contaminants of groundwater which cause serious problems include lead, arsenic, nitrate, thallium, pesticides, and a number of different bacteria which may cause a variety of diseases, such as polio, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis. Sometimes, if an area is polluted enough, it completely prevents the possibility of harvesting groundwater altogether.
All of these different pollutants of groundwater hold important consequences for many different aspects of human life, including drinking water, sanitation systems, and most importantly: food production. The UN estimates that more than one fourth of all energy used globally is for food production and that agriculture by far utilizes more freshwater than any other human activity.
It is undeniable that access to clean and uncontaminated water is a human right in which all persons should be included. However, this is far from the case and a percentage far too large is currently without reliable access to clean water for drinking, bathing, or other necessary uses of water. However, as we understand more about different aspects of water, and in particular, groundwater, we will be able to use water in a way which is sustainable. Beyond only our use, it is important to note that we, particularly in developed countries in the West, must focus on other forms of groundwater contamination, particularly run-off from roads and agriculture. Please visit www.worldwaterday.org to get involved and stand up for water equality and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Perhaps one of the biggest technological advances which separates our developed societies from the “old days” is our ability to harness and utilize electricity on an unprecedented level. However, with the advent of electricity, particularly widespread affordable electricity, had seemingly unending benefits. While electricity may not be in and of itself problematic, the specific ways we generate electricity may. In fact, a large portion of our electricity we use today is generated by polluting sources, namely non-renewables like coal. Not only does the burning of fossil fuels for electricity pollute the local air quality, it releases a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
Thankfully, we are steadily moving in the direction of clean and renewable energy sources. One source in particular which is perfect to explore in-depth for Solar Appreciation Day is, of course, solar energy! Although there may be many different connotations surrounding the idea of renewable energy and solar, it is simply harnessing the biggest source of energy in the entire solar system—the sun. Maybe at one point in history it was deemed impossible to utilize a source of energy which is 91.428 million miles away, but impressive advancements in technology have made that world a reality. In fact, in the United States in 2019, solar technology provides 30% of all total new electricity produced in the country. This is an astounding 650% jump from where the United States was operating in 2010!
For the United States to make that number to a 100%, it would take 10 million acres of land to supply space for the photovoltaics necessary to power the entire country. While that number may seem pretty large, consider that there are 2.43 billion acres in the United States. Due to the size of the United States, solar panels for the entire country would comprise only 0.4% of the total area. While certain geographical areas may require more photovoltaics due to the size of populations in certain areas, to generate enough electricity through solar methods is not impossible as a result of geographic reasoning. Even now at 30% across the country, the field of solar energy production contributes about 230,000 jobs to the career market.
Solar technology is also advancing rapidly as well, both in terms of production and the driving down of installation cost. Today, panel installations cost around $3 a watt, which is a significant drop from 2010’s $8.50 a watt. Further, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, new technologies are able to transform 47% of collected sunlight into electricity, in comparison most other panels convert around 20%. Almost assuredly, this number will only increase as photovoltaic technology continues to improve. The federal government, in particular the Department of Energy, provides a number of different economic incentives to introduce solar technologies. Even before those incentives, in the 8 years from 2010 to 2018, photovoltaic implementation fell from $40,000 to $18,000. Given this track, it is likely that implementation costs will continue to drop. It is also likely that federal and state governments will increase subsidies and other incentives related to solar energy technology.
All of these reasons and more is why we are recognizing and celebrating Solar Appreciation Day. Held on the second Friday of March every year, Solar Appreciation Day reminds us to appreciate the vast benefits of solar technology and perhaps consider our own implementation of photovoltaics.
What else should one who is contemplating installing personal solar technology consider? Well for starters, solar panels need to have as much direct access to sunlight as possible. While this may be intuitively obvious, certain logistical decisions (particularly where?) must be made with a holistic view and approach. For example, many choose to install solar panels on their home’s roof. While this likely corrects for many of the problems related to shade near the ground, the direction of the house is also important to note. South-facing solar panels are the most successful in comparison to other directions—given how the trajectory of the sun operates and moves throughout the sky.
Another thing to consider when planning to install panels is the existence of a tax credit for homeowners who install solar panels. A tax credit is as straightforward as one would imagine. Even though tax, and as an extension tax legislation, is complicated and, self-admittedly, rather boring, a tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of total income tax one would owe for a specific year. Therefore, claiming a $500 tax credit would mean one would owe $500 less on federal income taxes. Oftentimes, these federal tax credits are referred to as an Investment Tax Credit (ITC).
When it comes to the federal solar tax credit, this is a specific type of tax credit for a percentage of the cost of solar energy technology, which may be claimed on federal income taxes. In late 2020, there was a congressional extension of federal solar tax credit which approved a 26% credit for photovoltaic systems installed between 2020 and 2022. In 2023, the number drops 22% and will end completely unless specifically renewed by Congress. For a more in-depth look at solar energy tax credits, please visit the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s website.
When it comes specifically to soil and water conservation, solar energy has many benefits when compared to other forms of energy production. Namely, photovoltaic panels require almost no water to produce electricity. The only time that water is used is to clean the panels from dirt, dust, and other debris. This happens usually once a month and uses considerably less water than something like a coal power plant. In fact, according to the Department of Defense National Energy Technology Laboratory, some coal-fired power plants use about 12,000,000 gallons of water every single hour. This figure does not account for the water used in the process of mining coal as well.
Solar technology also does not add to the problems of soil health like other fossil fuels do. Of course, fossil fuels are usually far underground and require large mines with invasive technology. Other forms of energy production (or rather, inputs to energy production) which detract from the health of soil include hydrofracking and other forms of producing oil.
Beyond the benefits of solar which are a result of a lack of costs associated with alternative energy production, emerging research finds that the land occupied by solar photovoltaic technology may be undergoing change as well. Engineer Jeff Broberg explains that early models are indicative that stormwater run-off is reduced substantially in photovoltaic sites compared to traditional row crops. Further, the utilization of native, in many cases prairie, plants results in a rebuilding of organic matter and soil health. Microorganisms and other fauna found in the soil are able to recuperate after vast pesticide, fertilizer and other approaches which harm soil health. Lastly, the research related to the existence of properly managed solar fields points toward a growth in the diversity and presence of many different pollinating species—which is integral to crop and food production as well as soil health more broadly.
Although solar panels and photovoltaic products more broadly may be relatively newer technology and for many, an investment, it is clear that there are benefits beyond a cheaper electricity bill. Not only are there federal, monetary incentives in the form of subsidies, but there are many real-world benefits to both personal energy production, but to environmental conservation efforts, including a cleaner atmosphere, reduction of extreme water usage, as well as an avoidance of pollution and other water and soil contamination due to other, more traditional means of electricity production. All of these different benefits are why Solar Appreciation Day was recognized in the first place. It is undeniable the need to move away from non-renewable and polluting sources of energy at some point in the future of human progress, and it is likely that solar technology will play a sizable role in that future. Perhaps on its face it appears that soil and water conservation may not have some direct link to the recognition of photovoltaic technology, it is undeniable that there are direct links through both alternatives and through likely benefits of these panels. Happy Solar Appreciation Day!
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