RUG: Shining a light on solar power

Norb Rug

Cypress Creek Renewables is proposing to construct a project called “Bear Ridge Solar” to install solar panels in Cambria and Pendleton. I have no problem with people using their property for legal reasons.

Solar energy gives us clean power from the sun and it’s use is growing in both the United States and globally. The cost to put in solar energy has decreased by over 70 percent since 2010. In the past decade, solar power has had an average annual growth rate of over 60 percent. Many businesses and households that switch to solar energy save money.

While without a doubt solar energy might be a very important solution for a lot of the world’s energy problems, it’s not a cure all without problems. Studies have shown that solar energy has a significant environmental disadvantage.

The effect that solar farms may possibly have on plants and animals be capable of sending ripples through the entire ecosystem. The environment could become less livable for plants and wildlife that thrive in local conditions.

Utility size solar panels can take up a lot of space. I understand the Bear Ridge Solar project will take up 900 acres and I think it might result in environmental degradation. Solar farms could also obstruct local vegetation growth. Think about all those farms that let their land go fallow so the naturally occurring plant life can be harvested for hay.

However, a deeper perception of the environmental effect of solar installation could educate farmers on microclimate changes and how they could make better use of the land under panels. Farmers may need to think about selecting crops that can survive in the lower ground temperatures and shade created by the solar panels.

Solar farms that blanket a large volume of land are apt to impact the local fauna and flora, particularly birds. The loss of habit for birds include nesting sites, nest building materials, food sources like bugs and places to hide due to habitat loss. Solar panels aren’t able to share the land they occupy for other uses like wind energy.

Solar panels for domestic use usually don’t require very much land. In fact many of these installations are on roof tops and don’t use any land whatsoever. However, at the industrial level, the large amount of space required for the installation of panels needed to produce energy is a challenge.

Also, a great many people feel that utility scale solar panels will create a visual disruption for the local communities. I believe the song goes “Oh beautiful for spacious skies and amber waves of grain” not “the glint of solar panels.”

However, it is not just plant them and hook them up. There are emissions associated with different stages of the solar cell lifecycle. It is very important to know the solar panel production process. It begins with the mining and subsequent processing of the raw materials. Quartz, copper, silver and aluminum ores are mined from the earth utilizing trucks, tools and heavy equipment. These ores are then transported by trucks or rail to processing facilities. All of this requires fossil fuels or electricity. Quartz for instance undergoes processing with hazardous chemicals in high-temperature furnaces to produce electronic grade silicon. Creating solar photovoltaic panels is a very water intensive process. Even though the solar cells themselves don’t use water to generate electricity, the manufacturing process requires a quite a bit of water.

Off-grid Photo Voltaic systems frequently have throwaway batteries that can store energy when the sun shines so people can use it at night. These batteries will damage the environment if they aren’t disposed of properly because they might leak toxins such as lead and sulfuric acid.

Furthermore, quite a few solar cells contain small quantities of the toxic metal cadmium. The batteries that are required to store the electricity generated by photo cells can contain a myriad of other dangerous substances like heavy metals and other dangerous substances. If the manufacturers don’t strictly adhere to the laws and regulations regarding these chemicals, they can create significant health risks, especially to the workers. As solar technology improves, manufacturers may be able to move away from these potentially dangerous substances, but for now, they mar the otherwise impressive ecological benefits solar power offers.

Solar energy has some other problems. First, no matter how clear the skies, a solar panel won’t produce electricity at night, so a solar energy system needs to have some method of storing energy. And if there is bad weather for an extended time, a solar energy system will provide little output, which means you need to have backup energy generation alternatives available.

Moreover, when solar panels aren’t disposed of as they should be, these chemicals can be an environmental threat. Often, panels end up in e-waste dumps in developing countries such as India, China and Ghana where these toxic chemicals might create devastating health effects for residents of nearby communities. Solar panels are said to create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants do and we all know how that works out. Just think about Chernobyl or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.

Sure solar may be the way to go but I think we need to find this out from someone that ISN’T going to benefit from this.

Norb Rug is a freelance journalist from Lockport. He blogs at WhyWNY.home.blog.