As Americans, most of us want to live in a clean environment, breath clean air and drink clean water. In the United States, conservatives as well as liberals share these aspirations. What we sometimes differ on his how best to accomplish these goals. Our citizens are great about changing their ways to strive to be more conscious about our safety, the safety of others and the healthiness of our environment. However, we also demand a balance between the health of our environment, the health of our economy and the safety of ourselves and our families. In our zeal to feel that we’ve done a good thing to protect the environment, sometimes we tend to ignore basic flaws in the fixes we employ. This blog series will explore different environmental fixes that may need to be rethought.

Solar Power Feel-Good

Solar energy is growing, especially in areas of the country that enjoy sunshine most of the year, as in the desert valley of Las Vegas where I live. Having solar panels on my house definitely helps to keep my energy costs down. For hours a day, while the sun is shining on my roof, those wonderful panels soak it up and keep money in my pocket. During the winter I hardly have an electric bill at all. During the heat of the summer, my bill is large, but would be twice as much without those panels. Win for me. Win for the power grid.

Harnessing the power of the sun could be the world-wide green energy game changer at some point, but we aren’t quite there yet. Lack of an affordable way to store this energy demands constant sunlight, so in areas where there is an abundance of sun, as in Las Vegas, solar energy can be the way to go, at least during the daylight hours. Without a feasible way (yet) to store solar energy, during the dark hours, we still have to rely on other means of power for our electrical needs. According to instituteforenergyresearch.org energy use per household tops out after the sun goes down.

For solar panel farms on the power grid, this means power grid “operators are forced to rapidly scale up other generation sources as solar generation ceases in order to seamlessly meet peak demand.”  Because of this rapid increase in power needed from other sources of power on the grid, at this point in solar power development, there is a limit to the percentage of solar power you can have on any grid without actually losing money. The Institute for Energy Research puts that percentage at 5%. “In the absence of effective storage capability, any subsidies, mandates or incentives for solar penetration above a 5-percent threshold are actively harmful to the reliability and economics of the power grid.” Too many panels on a grid is actually a net loss. Breakthrough.org comments, “Without utility scale energy storage technologies, which remain unviable, you simply can’t run a modern society on wind and solar alone.

Though possibly not as problematic as windmills, solar generation also has its share of environmental risks, including to wildlife, in the toxic chemicals used to create the panels, a lack of solar panel disposal options, and fire hazards.

While most bird deaths from solar plants and panels are simply birds flying into the mirror-like surfaces, mistaking them for a desert oasis, one particular solar plant has a much worse bird death record because of its design. After receiving a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the federal government, Ivanpah Solar Plant opened in 2014 in California’s desert. The workers at this plant call birds who fly too close to the solar panels here “streamers” because they turn into a stream of smoke as they are incinerated. You can watch the United States Geological Survey footage of the birds being cooked here: https://youtu.be/ICLXQN_lURk. Their “report recommends among other things that NRG shut down the power plant during peak migration times for some bird species and install video cameras to monitor birds as they fly into the solar flux.” ““We take this issue very seriously,” said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG Solar of Carlsbad, California, the second of the three companies behind the plant. The third, Google, deferred comment to its partners.

Creation and disposal of solar panels cause environmental concerns because of the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process as well as the potential to leak into the environment once the panel is disposed of. “The toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di)selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead, and polyvinyl fluoride. Additionally, silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of producing crystalline silicon, is highly toxic.” The waste water from the manufacturing process is also toxic, and in China where regulations are much more lax than in the United States, “[p]anel manufacturer Jinko Solar, for example, has faced protests and legal action since one of its plants, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, was accused of dumping toxic waste into a nearby river.” Broken panels in a landfill after their life-cycle is a great environmental hazard as well. “Panels left in landfills may break apart and release toxic waste into the ground or even enter bodies of water.

Fire caused by solar panels can be a concern as well, unfortunately. Apparently they can actually overheat (!) during the hottest months (Note: I live in the desert!) and actually ignite. They were the cause of this apartment fire in the Netherlandsthis exclusive block of flats in England, and this distribution warehouse in New Jersey. These fires are becoming more common as more people install solar panels on their rooftops. “Regardless of the materials used in the construction of a PV panel, its mere presence changes the dynamics of a fire involving a roof assembly.” Fires from solar panels put “firefighters in more danger because solar panels constantly create electricity, leading to a higher risk of electrocution.” The toxic chemicals released when burned also concern firefighters as well as anyone that might inhale these chemicals in the general vicinity of these fires.

The bottom line is that all sources of power have risks, and we must weigh the risks and rewards of each and not ignore the possible downfalls of the “feel good” renewable energy sources. Let’s move forward on new and renewable energy with our eyes open.