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Re-Evaluating Solar Photovoltaic Power

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Re-Evaluating Solar Photovoltaic Power--

Considering the ecological impacts we aim to reduce

Even when reality is harsh, I prefer it. I'd rather engineers say that my water could be off for three hours than tell me that replacing the valve will take one hour. I prefer knowing whether or not tomatoes come from genetically modified seed. If dyeing denim wreaks ecological hazards, I'd rather not keep ignorant.

The illusion that we're doing good when we're actually causing harm is not constructive. With reality, discovering true solutions becomes possible.

As extreme weather events (caused, at least in part, by fossil fuels' greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions) challenge electrical infrastructures, we need due-diligent evaluations that help us adapt to increasingly unpredictable situations--and drastically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and ecological damage. I have a hard time imagining a future without electricity, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, phones and vehicles. I also know that producing and disposing of manufactured goods ravages the Earth.

Internationally, governments are investing in solar photovoltaics (PVs) because they promise less ecological impacts than other fuel sources. First, I vote for reviewing aspects of solar systems that tend to be overlooked.

Hazards of Solar Photovoltaic Power
1. Manufacturing silicon wafers for solar panels depends on fossil fuels, nuclear and/or hydro power. Neither solar nor wind energy can power a smelter, because interrupted delivery of electricity can cause explosions at the factory. Solar PV panels' silicon wafers are "one of the most highly refined artifacts ever created."[1] Manufacturing silicon wafers starts with mining quartz; pure carbon (i.e. petroleum coke [an oil byproduct] or charcoal from burning trees without oxygen); and harvesting hard, dense wood, then transporting these substances, often internationally, to a smelter that is kept at 3000F (1648C) for years at a time. Typically, smelters are powered by electricity generated by a combination of coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydro power. The first step in refining the quartz produces metallurgical-grade silicon. Manufacturing solar-grade silicon (with only one impurity per million) requires several other energy-intensive, greenhouse-gas (GHG) and toxic waste-emitting steps. [2] [3] [4]

2. Manufacturing silicon wafers generates toxic emissions
In 2016, New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation issued Globe Metallurgical Inc. a permit to release, per year: up to 250 tons of carbon monoxide, 10 tons of formaldehyde, 10 tons of hydrogen chloride, 10 tons of lead, 75,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen, 75,000 tons of particulates, 10 tons of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 40 tons of sulfur dioxide and up to 7 tons of sulfuric acid mist. To clarify, this is the permittable amount of toxins allowed annually for one metallurgical-grade silicon smelter in New York State. [5] Hazardous emissions generated by silicon manufacturing in China (the world's leading manufacturer of solar PVs) likely has significantly less regulatory limits.

3. PV panels' coating is toxic
PV panels are coated with fluorinated polymers, a kind of Teflon. Teflon films for PV modules contain polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and fluorinated ethylene (FEP). When these chemicals get into drinking water, farming water, food packaging and other common materials, people become exposed. About 97% of Americans have per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) in their blood. These chemicals do not break down in the environment or in the human body, and they can accumulate over time. [6] [7] While the long-term health effects of exposure to PFAs are unknown, studies submitted to the EPA by DuPont (which manufactures them) from 2006 to 2013 show that they caused tumors and reproductive problems in lab animals. Perfluorinated chemicals also increase risk of testicular and kidney cancers, ulcerative colitis (Crohn's disease), thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension (pre-eclampsia) and elevated cholesterol. How much PTFEs are used in solar panels? How much leaks during routine operation--and when hailstorms (for example) break a panels' glass? How much PTFE leaks from panels discarded in landfills? How little PFA is needed to impact health?

4. Manufacturing solar panels generates toxic waste. In California, between 2007 and the first half of 2011, seventeen of the state's 44 solar-cell manufacturing facilities produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge (semi-solid waste) and contaminated water. California's hazardous-waste facilities received about 97 percent of this waste; more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to facilities in nine other states, adding to solar cells' carbon footprint. [8]

5. Solar PV panels can disrupt aquatic insects' reproduction. At least 300 species of aquatic insects (i.e. mayflies, caddis flies, beetles and stoneflies) typically lay their eggs on the surface of water. Birds, frogs and fish rely on these aquatic insects for food. Aquatic insects can mistake solar panels' shiny dark surfaces for water. When they mate on panels, the insects become vulnerable to predators. When they lay their eggs on the panels' surface, their efforts to reproduce fail. Covering panels with stripes of white tape or similar markings significantly reduces insect attraction to panels. Such markings can reduce panels' energy collection by about 1.8 percent. Researchers also recommend not installing solar panels near bodies of water or in the desert, where water is scarce. [9]

6. Unless solar PV users have battery backup (unless they're off-grid), utilities are obliged to provide them with on-demand power at night and on cloudy days. Most of a utility's expenses are dedicated not to fuel, but to maintaining infrastructure--substations, power lines, transformers, meters and professional engineers who monitor voltage control and who constantly balance supply of and demand for power. [10] Excess power reserves will increase the frequency of alternating current. When the current's frequency speeds up, a motor's timing can be thrown off. Manufacturing systems and household electronics can have shortened life or fail catastrophically. Inadequate reserves of power can result in outages.

The utility's generator provides a kind of buffer to its power supply and its demands. Rooftop solar systems do not have a buffer.

In California, where grid-dependent rooftop solar has proliferated, utilities sometimes pay nearby states to take their excess power in order to prevent speeding up of their systems' frequency. [11]

Rooftop solar (and wind turbine) systems have not reduced fossil-fuel-powered utilities. In France, from 2002-2019, while electricity consumption remained stable, a strong increase in solar- and wind-powered energy (over 100 GW) did not reduce the capacity of power plants fueled by coal, gas, nuclear and hydro. [12]

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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