Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Solar power offers a continuously renewable, green form of energy, whether for large-scale energy production or heating household water. At their best, solar systems produce more energy than is required for production and disposal of the solar panels. Depending on its construction, a solar panel needs to operate anywhere from 10 months to 2 years to recoup energy expended during its production.
Under the right circumstances, solar panels provide good value compared to the amount of fossil fuels consumed by production. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that solar water heaters provide double the hot water for every unit of fossil fuel when compared to natural gas. When compared to electric water heaters, the amount increases by a factor of eight, making solar energy one of the most efficient power generation systems.
By Products and Lax Environmental Laws
Fossil fuel consumption isn't the only consideration when comparing energy sources. Solar panel production creates a number of toxic emissions and byproducts. Some solar panels, for instance, include sulfur hexafluride, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.
In most developed countries, disposal of toxic byproducts during solar panel manufacture is strictly controlled. Bear in mind, however, that not all countries have equally strict environmental laws. China, for example, is the third-largest solar panel producer in the world, providing both complete panels and many of the parts required for panel construction.
In at least one case, a Chinese company manufacturing silicon for solar panels disposed of toxic byproducts by simply dumping the waste on local farmland. The ultimate blame for such actions lies with the company, followed by the Chinese government for its lack of oversight. Some portion of the blame, however, must lie with solar manufacturers willing to purchase materials from questionable sources.
Some industry analysts express concern that the production and recycling of solar panels will mirror the e-waste crisis, where developing countries produce electronic parts but lack the infrastructure to control byproducts. At the end of their lifespans, many of these electronics are shipped back to developing countries where workers recycle rare metals from the devices in unsafe conditions.
Solar panels include dangerous toxins, including arsenic and cadmium. Even silicon, a relatively harmless substance, can damage health if inhaled as a dust. Under controlled conditions, workers are protected from such dangers. In the e-waste recycling dumps of third world countries, people come into contact with such toxins without ventilation masks, gloves or other safety features.
Still Green, When Chosen with Care
Fortunately, solar power generation equipment has time to prevent such catastrophes, and the motivation to do so. Most solar panel manufacturers and installers are genuinely concerned with producing the most environmentally conscious products possible. The industry is aware of problems such as the farmland byproduct dumping and generally tries to avoid such situations.
Consumers should make it clear that they want the greenest possible solar equipment manufactured using green practices. Solar energy is cheap, plentiful and effective, but it's wise to remember that even the greenest energy comes at a cost.
Michelle is a green activist with dreams of a future powered by renewable energy.