Is Solar Power Production Environmentally Friendly?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stated the following in its article “Renewable Energy for America: Harvesting the Benefits of Homegrown, Renewable Energy,” available at nrdc.org (accessed Aug. 2, 2013):
“The sun’s energy can be captured to generate electricity or heat through a system of panels or mirrors.
Aug. 2, 2013
- Solar, or photovoltaic, cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Most photovoltaic cells are made primarily of silicon, the material used in computer semiconductor chips, and arranged on rectangular panels. When sunlight hits a cell, the energy knocks electrons free of their atoms, allowing them to flow through the material. The resulting DC (direct current) electricity is then sent to a power inverter for conversion to AC (alternating current), which is the form in which electric power is delivered to homes and businesses.
- Solar thermal collectors use heat-absorbing panels and a series of attached circulation tubes to heat water or buildings.
- Solar concentration systems use mirrors – usually arranged in a series of long, parabolic troughs, a large round dish, or a circle surrounding a ‘power tower’ – to focus the sun’s reflected rays on a heat-collecting element. The concentrated sunlight heats water or a heat-transferring fluid such as molten salt to generate steam, which is then used conventionally to spin turbines and generate electricity.
- Passive solar design is the creative use of windows, skylights and sunrooms, building site and orientation, and thermal construction materials to heat and light buildings, or to heat water, the natural way.”
The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs stated the following in its article “About Solar Energy: Passive Solar, Solar Thermal, and Photovoltaic,” available at mass.gov (accessed Aug. 5, 2013):
“We are able to use the sun’s vast energy to heat air and hot water, through passive solar design and active solar thermal systems, and to generate electricity… Although this energy is not available all the time, and the earth’s protective atmosphere allows only some of it to reach the earth, it is still an integral renewable resource…
Passive Solar Design
Buildings can be designed to collect, store, and distribute solar energy as heat. Referred to as passive solar buildings, they maximize absorption of sunlight through south-facing windows and use dark-colored, dense materials in the building to act as thermal mass – they store the sunlight as solar heat (light colors are less effective for heat storage)…
Active solar thermal systems collect solar radiation to heat air and/or water for domestic, commercial, or industrial use. The collector for a solar hot water system is typically a 4 ft. x 8 ft. box structure that has a glass top with a black absorber underneath it to circulate water. As the water is pumped through the collector, it is warmed and then circulated through a large, insulated tank inside a building. The warmed water can then be used to provide heat or hot water to the building. A solar hot water system can comprise one or more solar collectors, which are mounted on either a pitched, south-facing roof or on the ground.”Aug. 5, 2013
Carol Olson, PhD, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), was quoted as stating the following in a Nov. 11, 2013 article by Diana S. Powers titled “Solar Power Begins to Shine as Environmental Benefits Pay Off,” available at nytimes.com:
“PV [photovoltaic, a type of solar technology] electricity contributes 96 percent to 98 percent less greenhouse gases than electricity generated from 100 percent coal and 92 percent to 96 percent less greenhouse gases than the European electricity mix.
Compared with electricity from coal, PV electricity over its lifetime uses 86 to 89 percent less water, occupies or transforms over 80 percent less land, presents approximately 95 percent lower toxicity to humans, contributes 92 to 97 percent less to acid rain, and 97 to 98 percent less to marine eutrophication.”Nov. 11, 2013
The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, a regional renewable energy advocacy group, in a section of its website titled “Solar Electricity” (accessed Oct. 30, 2008), wrote:
“Of all the renewable energy sources available, solar cells have the smallest environmental impacts. Electricity produced from photovoltaic cells does not result in air or water pollution, deplete natural resources, or endanger animal or human health. The only potential negative impacts are associated with some toxic chemicals, like cadmium and arsenic, that are used in the production process. These environmental impacts are minor and can be easily controlled through recycling and proper disposal.”Oct. 30, 2008
Ken Zweibel, PhD, Founding Director of the Institute for Analysis of Solar Energy at George Washington University, James Mason, PhD, Director at the Solar Energy Campaign, and Vasilis Fthenakis, PhD, Senior Research Engineer and Scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, in their Dec. 2007 Scientific American article “A Solar Grand Plan,” wrote the following:
“In our plan, by 2050 photovoltaic technology would provide almost 3,000 gigawatts (GW), or billions of watts, of power. Some 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic arrays would have to be erected. Although this area may sound enormous, installations already in place indicate that the land required for each gigawatt-hour of solar energy produced in the Southwest is less than that needed for a coal-powered plant when factoring in land for coal mining. Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., show that more than enough land in the Southwest is available without requiring use of environmentally sensitive areas, population centers or difficult terrain… The benign nature of photovoltaic plants (including no water consumption) should keep environmental concerns to a minimum.”Dec. 2007
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), in a section of its website titled “Why PV Is Important” (accessed Oct. 21, 2008), wrote:
“Few power-generation technologies have as little impact on the environment as photovoltaics. As it quietly generates electricity from light, PV produces no air pollution or hazardous waste. It doesn’t require liquid or gaseous fuels to be transported or combusted.”Oct. 21, 2008
Vasilis M. Fthenakis, PhD, Senior Research Engineer and Scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, in his Aug. 8, 2004 article “Life Cycle Impact Analysis of Cadium in CdTe PV Production,” in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, wrote the following:
“In summary, the environmental risks from CdTe [cadmium telluride] PV [photovoltaic cells] are minimal. The estimated atmospheric emissions of 0.02g of Cd per GWh [gigawatt hour] of electricity produced during all the phases of the modules’ life, are extremely low. Large-scale use of CdTe PV modules does not present any risks to health and the environment, and recycling the modules at the end of their useful life completely resolves any environmental concerns. During their operation, these modules do not produce any pollutants, and, furthermore, by displacing fossil fuels, they offer great environmental benefits. CdTe in PV appears to be more environmentally friendly than all other current uses of Cd, including Ni–Cd [nickel-cadium] batteries.”Aug. 8, 2004
Dustin Mulvaney, PhD, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at San Jose State University, stated the following in his Aug. 26, 2014 article, “Solar Energy Isn’t Always as Green as You Think,” available at the IEEE Spectrum website:
“[W]hile generating electricity through photovoltaics is indeed better for the environment than burning fossil fuels, several incidents have linked the manufacture of these shining symbols of environmental virtue to a trail of chemical pollution… the vast majority of solar cells today start as quartz, the most common form of silica (silicon dioxide), which is refined into elemental silicon. There’s the first problem: The quartz is extracted from mines, putting the miners at risk of one of civilization’s oldest occupational hazards, the lung disease silicosis…
The initial refining turns quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon, a substance used mostly to harden steel and other metals. That happens in giant furnaces, and keeping them hot takes a lot of energy… The next step, however—turning metallurgical-grade silicon into a purer form called polysilicon—creates the very toxic compound silicon tetrachloride… Capturing silicon from silicon tetrachloride requires less energy than obtaining it from raw silica, so recycling this waste can save manufacturers money. But the reprocessing equipment can cost tens of millions of dollars. So some operations have just thrown away the by-product. If exposed to water—and that’s hard to prevent if it’s casually dumped—the silicon tetrachloride releases hydrochloric acid, acidifying the soil and emitting harmful fumes.”Aug. 26, 2014
Paul K. Driessen, JD, Senior Fellow with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, in a chapter titled “Solar and Wind Power Are Unproductive and Environmentally Harmful,” in the 2005 book At Issue: What Energy Sources Should be Pursued?, wrote:
“Producing 50 megawatts of electricity using a gas-fired generating plant requires between 2 and 5 acres of land. Getting the same amount from photovoltaics means covering some 1,000 acres with solar panels (assuming a very optimistic 10 watts per square meter (W/m2) or 5 percent peak efficiency), plus access for trucks to clean the panels. Using the sun to meet California’s energy needs would require paving over tens of thousands of acres of desert habitat, sacrificing what the Wilderness Society calls ‘some of the most beautiful landscapes in America,’ and with it their resident plant and animal life.”2005
The California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research Program (PIER) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), stated the following in their Nov. 2003 report “Potential Health and Environmental Impacts Associated with the Manufacture and Use of Photovoltaic Cells,” available at the California Energy Commission website:
“The production of photovoltaic devices can involve the use of some toxic and explosive gases, corrosive liquids, and suspected carcinogenic compounds. The magnitude of potential effects will vary based on the materials’ toxicological properties, and the intensity, frequency, and duration of human exposure…
Disposal of large quantities of modules in a single landfill could lead to increased potential risks to humans and biota [animal and plant life of an area or time period]. The leaching of chemicals from these landfilled modules has the potential to contaminate local ground and surface water…
Biota inhabiting the areas in the vicinity of an accidental release at a manufacturing facility could be exposed to elevated concentrations of chemicals through direct ingestion of compounds, ingestion of contaminated water, contact with contaminated soils, or inhalation of contaminated air. Exposure to chemicals can lead to a variety of impacts on organisms, including impaired reproduction, decreased pulmonary activity, increased mortality, and reduced growth. The severity of any effects will vary depending upon the amount and type of chemical being released.”Nov. 2003
Howard C. Hayden, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Connecticut, in his 2005 book The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World, wrote:
“The Solar Two site [a solar installation in Barstow, CA] occupies 52.6 hectares (130 acres) and produces 10 MWe (megawatt electrical) peak. Its capacity factor is about 16%. For a Solar-Two installation to produce as much energy as a typical 1000-MWe power plant [approximately 0.6 square miles] does in a year, it would have to cover about 33,000 hectares (127 square miles). That is environmental impact!”2005