Solar Panels: Another Climate Disaster?

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Most of us have experienced that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. We’re most likely seeing only part of the picture, the rest being either hidden or ignored – or both. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for most of our so called sustainable energy sources. Looking closer, they turn out to be not so sustainable after all. Quite possibly the opposite.

I’ve touched this issue a couple of times before, like in Is ‘Going All Electric’ Killing the Planet?’ which underscores the most important point: At this stage, there is no other solution to the energy problem than to use less. Which unsurprisingly is also the option the world doesn’t want. So we embrace the ‘clean/sustainable energy’ story and go on electrifying everything – head-over-heel. 

For the record, there is no question that electric is the solution. What’s in question is how – now that most of the world finally seems to accept that fossil is bad for everyone except the oil/coal companies and their backers.

For most people the ‘how’ question doesn’t even exist. SWW – Solar, Wind, Water – is the solution. The general consensus is that there are no alternatives, which is wrong, but that’s a different story (see When Nuclear News is Good News and The New Energy Equation). 

In short, the solar/wind/water combination is the politically correct story of the day, the only way to replace fossil fuels big time and fast. In part thanks to politically motivated subsidies, huge government funded projects and pollution taxes, the world seems to be headed in the right direction. And while changes are much too slow compared to the accelerating climate problems, the positive effects of the shift are very visible. But are they sustainable?

This is where the ‘too good to be true’ factor comes in. The total climate footprint of the ‘clean’ alternatives is generally being suppressed or ignored. It fits neither the message nor the ‘renewable’ business. And it doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about solar, wind or water. All three destroy nature and climate in various ways – short term and long term, visibly and invisibly. Water possibly the least, because we’re ignoring the climate cost of huge construction projects in pristine nature (like dams, artificial lakes, power lines …). For more than a hundred years it was considered a necessary and acceptable cost of progress. Fortunately, our mindset is changing as we get more knowledge about and become more conscious about the consequences.

Wind turbines have a similar history – acceptable, maybe even beautiful at first. Then – as they kept on growing into ever larger monsters and spreading from easily accessible and populated areas to pristine and remote nature, they became monstrosities with a huge climate footprint in themselves. And an increasing number of people started questioning their real sustainability profile.

But solar is a different story, right? Just put some panels on rooftops, connect them, possibly get some batteries to turn them into 24/7 sources, and we’re done. Industrial areas, cities, there are plenty of small and big roofs to take advantage of, and you cannot get closer to the customers than that. Expand that to deserts and lakes (yes, even lakes have been covered with solar panels) and we’re on a really big and very sustainable roll, right?

Not so fast. Possibly even more so than wind and water, solar – more specifically solar panels – are too good to be true. We’ve managed to evade the real climate footprint of solar for so long because it’s complicated. Most of the panels come from China, the raw materials come from all over the world, Africa in particular. And the amount of energy it takes to produce one single panel – from melting the glass and aluminum frame to mining and transporting important raw materials from faraway places, has been conveniently ignored as ‘too hard to quantify, but reasonable’.

A convenient assumption and again too good to be true. Now that the real numbers are starting to appear, the picture is becoming a lot more nuanced – to say the least. The jury is still out on how bad, but this article will give you an idea (strongly recommended): Solar Panels: Another Exercise in Magical Thinking. One of the brutal assessments made in the article is this:

“The high heat and stable electricity from the dirtiest of fossil fuels, combined with unfettered globalization is what made cheap solar panels possible.”

One of many rather scary elements of the panels’ complicated journey from grains of sand to powering your home. Another one is recycling, which turns out to be really hard – and energy intensive.

An enlightening and reasonably balanced essay (although it is mocking some of our convenient misunderstandings at times). As the subheading points out: “Solar is the future, but not the way you are told.” My take: Solar is the future, solar panels are not. 

Case in point – and unrelated to the sustainability equation: Solar panels are piling up in warehouses all over these days. The market is saturated – not with energy, but with non-continuous energy. Solar panels are dead at night, very live during the day – a ‘duty cycle’ an overstretched power grid cannot handle. Surprised? Me neither.

Think about it: Solar panels don’t lend themselves to make solar panels. Making them (and lots of other industrial products) requires continuous, stable, high quality energy in huge quantities which solar panels cannot deliver. More batteries? Don’t get me started…

Instead – for some inspiration – head over to The Ultimate Source of Clean Energy is You. And remember: Right now, your challenge – and mine – isn’t to find more energy, but to use less.

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