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Solar Power More Harmful To Environment Than Nuclear?

We’re skeptical of this because of the source of the study, but it warrants more investigation and study.

A Clean Energy’s Dirty Little Secret

Clean energy may not be so clean after all.

A new study by Environmental Progress (EP) warns that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat. The Berkeley-based group found that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. Discarded solar panels, which contain dangerous elements such as lead, chromium, and cadmium, are piling up around the world, and there’s been little done to mitigate their potential danger to the environment.

Okay, so the study was funded by a pro-nuclear group. That right there is reason to view the study with skepticism. It does not, however, mean that the study should be dismissed out of hand.

Solar panels are considered a form of toxic, hazardous electronic or “e-waste,” and according to EP researchers Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson, scavengers in developing countries like India and China often “burn the e-waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.”

This is one of the dirty little secrets behind the push for renewable energy. While consumers might view solar panels as harmless little windows made from glass and plastic, the reality is that they are intricately constructed from a variety of materials, making it difficult to disassemble and recycle them. Japan is already scrambling for ways to reuse its mounting inventory of solar-panel waste, which is expected to exceed 10,000 tons by 2020 and grow by 700,000 to 800,000 tons per year by 2040. Solutions are hard to find, due both to the labor-intensive process of breaking down the panels and to the low price of scrap. (Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, disputes EP’s study. In an e-mail to me, he claims that solar panels are “mainly made up of easy-to-recycle materials that can be successfully recovered and reused at the end of their useful life.”)

We would also view Whitten’s claim with some skepticism as he is an advocate for a pro-solar group.

So while he dismisses the claim, we know that even today waste companies are struggling with the recycling of printed circuit boards such as the type used in control boxes for solar panels. The materials on those pc boards are difficult and costly to recycle.

This is not to even mention the environmental damage done by making solar panels in the first place. A 2013 investigation by the Associated Press found that from 2007 to 2011, the manufacture of solar panels in California “produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water. Roughly 97 percent of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states.” That’s no way for a state to keep its carbon footprint small; one renewable-energy analyst quoted by the AP estimated it would take “one to three months of generating electricity [from the solar panels] to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state.” Six years later, it’s safe to assume the amount of toxic waste is even higher as solar-panel production continues to ramp up.

It seems clear that while we don’t know the totality of the harmful environmental effects of solar panels, the environmental impact has been underestimated or under reported.

The bottom line is that solar power is not the harmless panacea that supporters claim.



2 Responses to “Solar Power More Harmful To Environment Than Nuclear?”

  1. Lee says:

    It takes up a heck of a lot of land, so it’s not very effective from a land used to energy generated ratio. Stewart Brand apparently not too many years ago become a proponent for nuclear power as one of the more efficacious energy generation sources. Though between what happened in Japan and recently in Washington State, I’m not quite sold.

    • AAfterwit says:

      Lee,

      Solar power does take up a lot of space as compared to nuclear. We believe that solar will remain a supplemental form of power, but it will never reach the level needed to power the entire grid, even if you add in wind.

      I have a good friend who was a nuclear engineer and who worked at a Florida nuke plant. When the Japanese reactor problem happened, his first comment was “people don’t realize this, but no one builds reactors and control systems like that anymore. We don’t have any reactors and control systems like that anywhere in the US.”

      That’s an interesting point when you think about it. Should we shut down an entire way of generating power because someone else screwed up? Because they didn’t follow standards that have been in place in the US for quite some time?

      One thing is for certain, the power demands of the country are increasing at an exponential rate. We have to find ways to generate more power.

      Hope you had a great 4th of July.

      A. Afterwit.

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