Sunday, September 18, 2011

The dark side of the sun

As solar panels are getting more popular, I'm starting to see them on rooftops all over the city. I support efforts to reduce carbon output, but people often look at me as though I have two heads when I say I have mixed feelings toward solar generated electricity. How could I possibly have a problem with pollution-free, renewable energy?

What many people often miss in all the hyper-marketing is the dark side of the sun. My first complaint is that the focus on renewable energy diverts attention away from the much more difficult task of energy reduction. The idea of pollution-free energy relieves guilt when lights are left on upstairs while playing with our gaming systems on our plasma TVs downstairs.

My second complaint is that there really is no such thing as 'free' energy, and it certainly is not ‘pollution-free’. It takes a lot of energy to produce the photovoltaic (PV) cells to begin with, not to mention the waste the cells themselves become at the end of their lives. These issues are often ignored by the advocates of solar power. If I took the many adverts at face value, I would think that it makes absolutely no pollution at all to harvest the sun’s energy.

Most distressing to me are the consequences of large-scale adoption of photovoltaic cells. An increasing number of PV cells on the market are made of Cadmium telluride. While they do not pose a human health risk during the useful life of the device, I am concerned about what happens to the PV cells after the useful life. In all likelihood, today's PV cells will become tomorrow landfill waste. As these cells hit the landfills and become saturated by leachate, the liquid that slowly forms in landfills, the cadmium in the cells will have ample opportunity to leach out of the glass and into the soil and aquifers.
Cadmium is a known carcinogen. If widely adopted and distributed, PV cells leave precious groundwater highly vulnerable to contamination. So far, Ontario has no mandated recycling programs for PV cells. The lack of a containment plan for all this cadmium leaves me wondering what type of mess future generations will inherit. Is society trading off the future of water security for cheap, guilt-free energy now?
While I’d like to see my society become less dependent on fossil fuels, the full speed ahead rampage towards green energy is leaving out vital information for Canadians. So far, very few people, business or government, are talking about the risks and downsides of various renewable energy sources. All the advertising is about the positives points of solar leaving consumers with a euphoric sense of guilt free consumption.

A frank and honest discussion must take place, openly telling Canadians what the risks associated to harvesting ‘free energy’ from the sun for electrical needs really are. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘renewable’ energy has hijacked the effort to reduce energy consumption while glossing over any negative side effects. Without an effort to substantially reduce energy consumption, investments in alternative energy will amount to little more than lip service to the environment as one form of pollution is traded for another.

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