Solar power is growing rapidly. That’s great for the environment in a lot of ways, but only if we pay careful attention to solar energy problems.
Despite the pandemic, the industry added more capacity in 2020 than it did in 2019. All signs indicate that installations will continue to grow. What’s more, efficiency of panels has grown over the past decade by as much as 0.5% every year while production costs have dropped sharply.
As people who care about the environment, we can cheer.
Unfortunately, solar energy has some serious disadvantages. They don’t invalidate the need for clean renewable energy, but we need to be aware of them and encourage finding solutions.
Here are three crucial solar energy problems.
China has muscled its way to world domination in the solar industry while still relying heavily on coal.
The land required for utility-scale solar farms brings solar energy into conflict with other environmental priorities, including biodiversity.
And solar panels don’t last forever. They have an expected lifespan of 25-30 years, assuming they don’t get damaged in the meantime. Do we have enough time to prepare for a glut of spent panels?
1. Solar energy’s China problem and greenhouse gases
Solar energy is supposed to eliminate greenhouse gases, isn’t it?
Once solar panels are installed, they do so. But manufacturing anything has some upfront environmental costs. Making solar panels is only as green as the energy that powers the factory. American electricity is becoming cleaner. That’s good news.
But here’s the first of the solar energy problems: it doesn’t matter.
Why? China muscled its way to dominate solar manufacturing.
At the turn of the century, US companies made 22% of the world’s solar panels. Now, they produce only 1%. Most of the 75 major American factories that used to make solar parts have gone out of business.
China produces not only about three quarters of the world’s solar panels, but also most of the required polysilicon. China has taken over the solar industry without regard to the environmental and human rights costs of doing so.
The federal government has also wanted to make the US a renewable-energy superpower. It has provided billions of dollars of incentives. Both the Obama and Trump administrations imposed stiff tariffs on China. But the American effort has been inconsistent and piecemeal. It has been no match for China’s single-minded pursuit of world domination.
Chinese factories devised ways to cut waste of raw material, which lowered their costs by 80%. But China hasn’t succeeded by boosting efficiency alone. It continues to rely on coal. It plans to reopen 53 shuttered coal mines over the coming years.
What’s more, most Chinese polysilicon comes from the Xinjiang region, where human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities are rampant. Some evidence indicates that the abuse includes forced labor in polysilicon production facilities.
Chinese solar production is built on a foundation of coal smoke and human rights abuses. It neutralizes solar energy advantages.
2. The cost of solar energy to biodiversity
Utility-scale solar farms require 100-400 times as much land as conventional power plants.
Reclaimed landfills, the roofs of large buildings, and parking lots all provide potential land for solar development, but is it enough? According to some estimates, relying entirely on solar and wind power for electricity would require at least a quarter of all the land in the country, maybe as much as half.
Building a solar farm requires clearing land. I have already written of the conflict between solar farms and preserving forests. Once built, the land can’t be used for much else. Wind farms can coexist with agriculture. Solar farms can’t accommodate any plants that can grow tall enough to cast a shadow.
The Yellow Pine Solar Project near Las Vegas, Nevada has brought up a different problem. Tortoises have been considered a threatened species in Nevada since 1990. Biologists relocated 139 of them to make room for the 3,000-acre solar farm.
Unfortunately, predators killed 30 of them within a few weeks. The disoriented tortoises only wanted to return to their familiar grounds. Their wandering in a place where they didn’t recognize safe hiding places made them an easy target. At the same time, drought conditions made it hard for badgers to find their standard diet of rodents. The tortoises made a tasty substitute.
At least the developers of this solar farm sought to mitigate its environmental impact and preserve biodiversity. We know enough to try to solve such solar energy problems, just not enough yet to succeed.
How many other species of plants and animals does massive solar development threaten?
3. Mountains of solar energy trash
Solar panels contain cadmium, gallium, lead, and other toxic materials. Spent or broken ones become hazardous wastes.
No economical process yet exists for recycling solar panels. It costs up to $30 to recycle a single panel, as opposed to only a dollar or two to send it to a landfill.
Solar panel recycling already looked like a huge looming solar energy problem a year ago when I first examined the issue. Now it appears that the same improvements in efficiency and decline in prices that make solar energy more and more attractive are likely to make the disposal problems grow worse. And they will hit the environment earlier than expected.
Let’s consider a hypothetical customer in California who installed roof-top solar panels in 2011. Those panels cost $40,800 to install, but a 30% tax credit offset part of it. The first year, they generated about 12,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, valued at $2,100. But the panels degrade in efficiency every year.
The customer expected to keep those panels for 30 years, but after 15 years (2026), the cost of buying and installing new panels will have fallen by about 70%. And the more-efficient new panels will produce more electricity. Therefore the value of the electricity will increase to $2,800. Replacing the old panels at that time instead of waiting till 2041 will increase the net present value of the installation by $3,000—in 2011 dollars, not adjusted for inflation.
The International Renewable Energy Agency anticipates 78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050, but that figure assumes everyone will retain their panels for 30 years.
Suppose lots of consumers—and utilities––decide to upgrade early to take advantage of lowered costs and increased efficiency. We have much less time than the industry anticipates to prepare for an avalanche of panels taken out of service.
Some tentative conclusions about solar energy problems
Opponents of renewable energy point to these and other solar energy problems as reasons to keep using fossil fuels. But global warming and other environmental conditions dictate that we stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
The average homeowner has limited ability to make any important decisions. We can’t wrestle control of the solar industry away from China. We can’t keep track of all the solar industry’s various threats to land management and biodiversity.
About the most we can do is decide whether to install solar panels and, if we do, when to upgrade. And the choices that seem best for our pocketbooks may make solar energy problems such as waste and recycling worse.
I don’t mean to say that we’re powerless. We can still keep informed, still vote, and otherwise exert influence.
But here’s perhaps the most important takeaway: nothing is perfect. Humanity seems to be incapable of solving one big problem without causing another one down the road. So let’s avoid getting too excited over any one environmental issue. Somewhere, somehow, we’ll have to plan more carefully, anticipate problems more quickly, and accept some tradeoffs.
The dark side of solar power / Atalay Atasu, Serasu Duran, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove; Harvard Business Review. June 18, 2021
Desert tortoise deaths near new Nevada solar farm draw study / Las Vegas Sun. July 31, 2021 [Link no longer works.]
How China used cheap coal and allegedly forced labour to dominate the world’s solar market / Jennifer Dlouhy, Financial Post. June 4, 2021