Saturday, March 9, 2019

Environmental Impacts of Renewables:

Growing Recognition that Nothing is Free

For a long time now, I have been harping on the point that the sun and the wind may be free, but collecting it and using it requires resources and produces wastes.  That is not to say that solar and wind energy are bad, but just that the impacts need to be understood and considered when making decisions on energy alternatives.

Therefore, I was glad to see several recent articles that recognized the same thing.  The first was actually a news item in the Daily Caller from last August that I just recently saw, reporting on solar panels catching fire in an apartment complex in Holland.  This in itself illustrated an issue that isn't often discussed--that there are some safety risks associated with all technologies, including solar and wind technologies.

But of more interest was the fact that the article went on to discuss other potential issues associated with solar power, including a report by Environmental Progress, a group led by Michael Shellenberger, claiming that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity generated than nuclear power plants.  While I haven't seen the study and can't vouch for the exact numbers, I have long been concerned about the need for heavy metals in the production of solar panels.  The Daily Caller article goes on to say that Japan is already experiencing problems in dealing with the growing amount of waste from solar panels.

The same week, I came across an article from a group called Interesting Engineering that addressed the question of whether storing waste at Yucca Mountain is a problem.  This article mainly addressed the nuclear waste problem, but in the context of the discussion, included the observation that renewable technologies, like wind and solar, also require raw materials and energy to produce the wind turbines and the solar panels.  The article includes a brief comment that solar and wind are "not completely environmentally friendly" during their lifetimes.  Clicking on the link on that comment brought me to pages posted by the Union of Concerned Scientists that in turn had links to the pages on the environmental impacts of each technology.  While these analyses were not qualitative and may not cover everything, they mention many of the same points that have been on my mind.

It has taken a long time for the euphoria over "infinite" amounts of "free," "clean" solar and wind energy to be tempered by reality.  The reality does not negate the fact that solar and wind can and should be part of the future energy mix.  It does, hopefully, start a dialogue that will lead to actions to be sure that the negative aspects of every technology are recognized and addressed from the start of the planning process for new energy systems, and that decisions are made based on a complete understanding of all the pros and cons of a technology and its alternatives.


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