Not that I have anything against solar panels but how clean are they actually? Solar power is getting a huge push from big countries like India and the European Union, and is fairly established in USA and China. Solar roofs are all in the vogue and there is even talks on solar cars and Aeroplanes. Next thing we need is solar power overtaking Petroleum to be an even bigger menace, as was the case with coal and the latter.
Coal is still one of the dirtiest fuels but it was hard to carry, had low efficiency and produced lots of thick smoke. Petroleum on the other hand was efficient, easy to carry and was relatively clean. This led to higher adoption in automobiles (more than coal would ever), causing the CO2 problem we have today. Petroleum is also a high pollutant at the refining stage, negating any kind of carbon-positive effect it had over coal in the first place. With electrification at an all-time high, solar panels or other ‘clean’ alternative could become mainstream very fast with very less research, causing same if not bigger problems to the world.
Let’s see how Solar power fare in our ‘green’ test!
Let’s start with the panels
Without getting in to details, Silicon is the main component of Solar Panels. This mineral has photovoltaic properties which means that it can set electrons in motion in response to light. This can then be channeled in the form of electricity and that is as simple as production gets. Silicon is very abundant in nature but is seldom exploited due to its high Embodied energy. This will change once demand for solar panels go up!
Other materials include Aluminium (for frame), copper, lead and even cadmium are used for various parts of the panels.
The Carbon Debt and future liabilities
If you didn’t understand what embodied energy means, it’s basically the amount of energy required to covert a raw substance in to useful one. Silicon is abundantly available in the environment as Siicon dioxide in sand and rock. In order to convert this in to high-grade silicon that we use in Solar Panels, energy as high as 1500 Megajoules per kilogram might be required. At this moment, all this energy come from conventional sources and Silicon is produced under extreme heat of industry-grade furnaces. This, ironically, is one of the most polluting production methods that we know of.
So, each solar panel in lieu of how it was made, starts off with a heavy ‘carbon debt’ in the world. It would take a long time before this debt can make-even, not to mention produce positive effects.
Speaking of ‘a long time’, it’s not like these solar panels can last for ever. They do have a shelf life (20-30 years) and the truth is, when that comes, most countries do not have sufficient infrastructure to safely dispose of them. Silicon is not a high-in-demand material and most times cost of recycling is the same as making it. So, the panels, especially in developing economies like China and India, are left to decay in the soil, even allowing toxic materials like lead to be swept away untreated. There is the case with Natural disasters like Cyclones wreaking havoc on the panels too, like we seen recently in USA.
Even considering everything I said above, Solar panels are still one of the more environmentally friendly electric sources available on the planet. 20-25 years of clean energy sounds lucrative even considering their initial carbon debt. This electricity can also supplement the booming e-automotive space, reduce their carbon at source. All these could potentially lead to lesser smoke and particulates in the atmosphere, and cleaner air in general.
However, I still think that Solar energy is an interim energy source that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but not quite a globally acceptable clean fuel alternative. Until something of that sort is made, we have to develop solar panels leaving least possible carbon footprint. Though hard, finding a cleaner way to produces high intensity heat for silicon production is an important step to achieve this.
An easier and more accessible step is improving recycling methods, or making panels more recycle-friendly. In Europe, Solar panels have been made with over 90% recycling efficiency-which is a huge number. The Solar Panels from developing nations like China are still half this, a concern aggravated by the poor recycling potential in rural areas where they find most use. The governments of these countries should take special attention for promoting high grade recyclable solar panels, neglecting the initial cost, so that they maight save multiple times that in recycling, or worse, in harm to the environment.
Routine check ups of Solar Panel for faults and efficiency loss should also be promoted.
So, on the ‘safe rating’, we can say solar energy is a solid 6/10 (with room for improvements).
What are your thoughts on Solar? Is it worth shifting to?