Those who prefer to wait on “green energy” alternatives until they can compete on the free market without taxpayer assistance likely already know the drawbacks of the new technology: it is costly, inefficient, and in some cases, poses more harm to the environment than conventional energy sources.
It’s unlikely you’ll hear that from anyone in the media outside of Fox News or talk radio, though — until now. On Saturday, the Associated Press published a lengthy, definitive piece on the “hazardous waste” created as a result of solar energy.
The article begins:
Homeowners on the hunt for sparkling solar panels are lured by ads filled with images of pristine landscapes and bright sunshine, and words about the technology’s benefits for the environment – and the wallet.
What customers may not know is that there’s a dirtier side.
While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.
To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.
The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar’s carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product’s impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.
After installing a solar panel, “it would take one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state,” said Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose State University environmental studies professor who conducts carbon footprint analyses of solar, biofuel and natural gas production. [Emphasis added]
The article then discusses solar panel companies in California, which leads the U.S. market:
The state records show the 17 companies, which had 44 manufacturing facilities in California, produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011. Roughly 97 percent of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
Several solar energy experts said they have not calculated the industry’s total waste and were surprised at what the records showed. [Emphasis added]
But what about Solyndra, the solar panel company that left taxpayers on the hook for $535 million and turned its equipment into modern art after going bankrupt?
The Associated Press relates:
Solyndra…reported producing about 12.5 million pounds of hazardous waste, much of it carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water, which was sent to waste facilities from 2007 through mid-2011.
Before the company went bankrupt, leading to increased scrutiny of the solar industry and political fallout for President Barack Obama’s administration, Solyndra said it created 100 megawatts-worth of solar panels, enough to power 100,000 homes.
The records also show several other Silicon Valley solar facilities created millions of pounds of toxic waste without selling a single solar panel, while they were developing their technology or fine-tuning their production. [Emphasis added]
But the Associated Press adds in defense of solar energy: “While much of the waste produced is considered toxic, there was no evidence it has harmed human health.”
The article concludes with the assertion that solar energy is still better for the environment than fossil fuels, and it’s better that the toxic sludge end up in waste facilities than in the air or water.
The only challenge is getting the solar panel companies to be open with the amount of waste they produce.
The executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which began in 1982 and scores companies on their environmental impact, commented: “We find the overall industry response rate to our request for environmental information to be pretty dismal for an industry that is considered `green.'”