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June 29 2017

Solar Energy: Not As Clean As You Think

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Environmentalists often take a simplistic view of energy production: traditional energy is bad/harmful, renewable energy is good/safe. So it’s noteworthy—and praiseworthy—when a green publication digs into the nuance, reporting honestly about the environmental impact of alternative energy.

That’s just what Environmental Progress did this month, conducting an in-depth investigation into solar panel waste. The website, run by Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” Michael Shellenberger, compared the impact of solar and nuclear energy. A few findings:

Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.

If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).

In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.

… Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, which can damage the nervous system, as well as chromium and cadmium, known carcinogens. All three are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.

Writing for NationalReview, Julie Kelly uses Environmental Progress’s findings as a launch point, offering more reasons why solar isn’t the deus ex machina the left touts it as:

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. … This will also be a problem here in the U.S., which has more than 1.4 million solar-energy installations now in use, including many already near the end of their 25-year lifespan. 

… 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’s good to see politicized pet renewable projects finally getting some of the same scrutiny that traditional energy has long endured.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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