The Unintended Environmental Consequences of Ignoring Nuclear and Going Ga-Ga Over Green

If the goal is abundant energy for the most people with the smallest environmental impact, why are all the more damaging sources being promoted over one that produces...

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There’s a story making the rounds about an airport in India. What’s special about is it is completely powered by solar energy. It’s kind of a big deal.

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy inaugurated the 12 MWp solar power plant, comprising 46,150 solar panels laid across 45 acres near the cargo complex, at a function at the airport this morning.

That’s a lot of solar panels, and while everyone is busy staring in awe at the massive size of the project, there’s a nagging question that needs answered: how green are those solar panels?

Fabricating the panels requires caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and the process uses water as well as electricity, the production of which emits greenhouse gases. It also creates waste. These problems could undercut solar’s ability to fight climate change and reduce environmental toxics.

A new ranking of 37 solar manufacturers, the Solar Scorecard, shows that some companies are doing better than others. Chinese manufacturer Trina scored best, followed by California-based SunPower.

Oh, that’s interesting. A Chinese manufacturer is doing better on the scorecard than a U.S. company. That’s surprising:

The SVTC relies on companies’ self-reported data for its scorecard, which looks at such things as emissions, chemical toxicity, water use, and recycling.

Ah, now it makes sense.

Well, certainly since this scorecard is five years old, we’re able to see progress, right?

It’s the group’s fifth scorecard, and it shows that the industry is becoming more—not less—opaque when it comes to the sustainability of its manufacturing practices.


There are breakthroughs that are making the manufacturing of solar panels less environmentally hazardous, but there are other concerns. Energy consumed during production and water usage needed are two. A big one is what to do when you’re done with the panel. Recycling panels isn’t exactly easy right now. From Grist:

Solar modules can contain toxic materials, and they have a finite life cycle. As the industry booms — the number of megawatts installed in the United States in 2010, for instance, spiked 67 percent — photovoltaic trash eventually will become an issue.

National Geographic adds:

Right now, solar panel recycling suffers from a chicken-or-egg problem: There aren’t enough places to recycle old solar panels, and there aren’t enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive.

Ben Santarris, strategic affairs director for SolarWorld, said his company has made efforts to recycle panels, but the volume isn’t there yet. “We have product that’s still performing to standard from 1978, so we don’t have a big stream,” he said. “It is a problem, because on one hand there is an interest in getting ahead of a swelling stream of returning panels. On the other hand, there’s not a big market for it right now.”

Recycling is particularly important because of the materials used to make panels, said Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San José State University who serves as a scientific adviser to SVTC. “It would be difficult to find a PV module that does not use at least one rare or precious metal,” he said, “because they all have at least silver, tellurium, or indium.”

Because recycling is limited, Mulvaney said, those recoverable metals could go to waste: “Companies that are reporting on a quarterly basis, surviving on razor-thin margins—they’re not thinking 20, 30 years down the road, where the scarcity issue might actually enter the conversation.”

No doubt if allowed, the free market will solve the problem. There’s one issue still remaining and a question that needs answered: what impact do these arrays have on the actual environment?

No one knows:

Climate is a known and powerful factor in changing the nature of soil and the relationship with plants that can grow there. Research carried out so far into both wind farms and solar parks suggests that these types of changes in land-use could result in micro-climate changes.

Work on wind farm sites, for example, has highlighted local effects on temperatures, changed humidity levels through turbulence, higher concentrations of biogenic gas (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide), and changes in patterns of cloud cover and rainfall. It’s clear that PV panels will cause shading and changes to wind flow, and in principle is likely to alter temperature, change the rainfall distribution (which impacts on soil moisture) and the wind flow over the land.

But we just don’t know enough about what happens to the soil, plants and wildlife in areas where ground mounted PV parks are constructed. The phenomenon is still a new one and rapid development is taking place on the basis of ignorance. But the effect the PV panels have on the local climate and what impact this has on the plants and soil is very important.

We know the problems associated with previous so-called green solutions, from “cheaper and cleaner” ethanol being “not as green as previously thought,” to wind mills generating electricity along with noise pollution and a bald eagle body count.

And now even the environmentalists are against hydro.

Meanwhile, the greenest energy source in the history of ever also produces far more energy on far less land. For example, Arkansas Nuclear One Station produced 1,800 Megawatss on 1,100 acres, or 1.7 square miles. A solar farm would need 13,320 acres, or 21 square miles, to produce the same amount of energy.

It’s also important to note that the nuke plants acreage isn’t all concrete buildings and high voltage cable. For example, quite a bit of Cooper Nuclear Station’s 1,100 acre footprint is timber, filled with wildlife and cropland rented out to local farmers, who grow corn and beans on it, further lowering the plant’s carbon footprint.

Overall, nuclear has a much smaller footprint than the green alternatives.

If the goal is abundant energy for the most people with the smallest environmental impact, why are all the more damaging sources being promoted over one that produces more with a smaller impact?

Makes a person wonder if that’s not really the goal.

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1 comment

  1. john Reply

    Comparing the dangers of HF or NaOH to Nuclear power is like comparing a paper cut to a quadruple bypass surgery. Either one is painful, only one is life threatening. Heck, our stomachs contain HCl which is every bit as hazardous as HF. Foot print and dead eagles are also hardly the rulers by which one measures the costs or benefits of various technologies.

    There’s definitely something to be said for the waste stream byproducts of various technologies and doing an objective assessment of the rare earths in solar panels, which can be recycled, to the CO2 in carbon (which is having a profound impact on the planet and is not being managed by any energy producer), or to the nuclear waste and potential meltdown dangers of nuclear, there’s no comparison. Green – Non Carbon – wins.

    So setting aside those risk factors it comes down to cost factors. The ones with the highest risks and lack of mitigation (carbon, nuclear) cost the least…primarily because they don’t manage those risks at all. We build caves way underground and bury the nuclear waste…and we pollute the planet with the carbon waste. Once the overall cost of ownership (including mitigation of all waste streams) becomes equal…then what should people choose?
    And…if that’s what we should choose…then why shouldn’t we start working in that direction now?