SOLAR POWER COMING YOUR WAY
by Sadhu Govardhan
As the worlds natural resources are rapidly dwindling and fear of peak oil is beginning to spread, talk about alternative (renewable) energies is on the rise. The most popular amongst them is solar power and it is supposed to come your way soon. Already in 1994, Shell International Petroleum projected that renewable energy, especially solar, will account for 50% of the world’s energy production by 2050. It promises clean energy, increased independence from the grid, fast installation, a good life span (solar panels last 20-35 years, batteries 2-6 years) – all with low environmental impact.
All of this sounds so good and promising that the vast majority of people are believing it without questioning it. Fortunately, it is only the vast majority and not everyone. Once you scratch underneath the surface, you will find a dark side of the solar power industry that wouldn’t be very popular and therefore is mostly hidden.
As a society, we have been trained to develop tunnel vision and always see the product only. In order to understand the true benefits or disadvantages of a product, we need to expand our vision and see the entire process: extraction (natural resource exploitation), production (including setting up factories), distribution (which is largely coal or oil based), consumption (the engine of our system of choice: consumerism) and disposal (toxic materials ending up in incinerators or landfills).
Every conventional product and many “alternative” products have to go through this cycle of what is called “materialism” or “consumerism”. This system is currently promoted world wide as the most advanced way of life in the history of mankind. Materialistic capitalism is entirely dependent on consumerism. So much so, that our entire economy stands and falls with the way we consume. If consumers would suddently stop consuming, the economy would fall apart “over night”.
And consume we do – at a higher rate than ever, condemned to never stop. Corporations and governments make sure that we remain enthusiastic by all means.
What now about the latest fantastic energy product on the horizon – solar powered systems?
In March of 2008, the Washington Post published an eye-opening article about the hidden or darker side of solar power. China, a sleeping giant that is now becoming the largest and fastest growing economic force in the world has finally begun to taste the nectar of life: money. They have lagged far behind the most “civilized” and “successful” world leader, the United States for long enough. Now they too, have joined the race to exploit natural resources at the fastest pace possible. It was no problem for them to clear massive forest areas to establish giant factories to produce polysilicon – the main ingredient in solar panel production - destined for solar panels sold around the world (over 90% of all panels are still made with polysilicon). In no time have they become the largest producers of photovoltaic (pv) systems on the planet. The main resource these giant factories are after is polysilicon.
Polysilicon is made from sand. It is complicated to produce and requires enormous amounts of energy. For each ton of polysilicon produced, the process generates at least four tons of a toxic liquid substance, called “silicon tetrachloride”. When exposed to humid air, it transforms into acids and highly toxic hydrogen chloride gas.
The Washington Post article mostly focused on how thousands of tons of this toxic substance were dumped over farm lands, which truned them into toxic grave yards. But the customer, a well-to-do middle class man or woman in the civilized west doesn’t see that. After all, who wants to be reminded that the manufacture of solar cells involves large amounts of aluminum, glass, mild steel, lead, cadmium, mercury and other ingredients that consume enormous amounts of energy and cause carbon dioxide emissions? And who wants to be aware of the vast amounts of fossil fuels that are used to produce and transport solar panels and batteries? (Solar PV battery banks are essentially the same type of lead-acid batteries used in cars, with a similarly short lifespan).
“Ok, the production part is bad, but can’t we just save the day by recycling the toxic waste products and later on the hundreds of millions of panels and batteries properly?” It doesn’t even sound good, but let’s say it does, and we just have to recycle as much as we can. There is no doubt that hundreds of millions of batteries which would have to be discarded every few years would cause serious environmental problems. In order to recycle silicon tetrachloride, it has to be heated to more than 1800 degrees – a very costly, time- and energy-consuming process that would drive the prices of solar panels up extremely. Even with the prices kept low, the owners of these solar panel factories have become billionaires within just a few years.
This leads at least me to the next question: do we really want to remain stuck in a cycle of asking for a product that makes a few people billionaires at the cost of the exploitation of essential natural resources and extreme environmental pollution and destruction?
Yes, the idea of generating energy from a free energy source – the sun – sounds good. And yes, while a solar system is up and running there is minimal environmental impact, but can we forget the price we all have to pay for manufacturing and disposing of the product? We can’t. We simply can’t afford to make more fundamental mistakes, especially not on an enormous scale.
At this point, this “alternative” energy is still a toxic industry and far from being sustainable. But we are not supposed to say that because "it’s not good for our economy”. “Just buy the Goddamn’ product and don’t criticize or ask too many questions!” is the general attitude of the industry.
Many people who run their houses with solar energy do so because it eases their conscience: “I am green, I am alternative, and I care for the world. I can afford a good solution (to install a solar power system for an average house costs anywhere between 15 and 50k)”. But what do these same people say when confronted with the fact that the factory had to burn more than 40kg of coal to produce just one of their panels? Or what do they say about the hundreds of thousands of acres of silicon tetrachloride polluted farm land in China? What about the ammonia, the lung-eating trichlorosilane and chlorine that are left in the fields?
For decades, Western countries have been doing much of their dirty work (in terms of extraction, production and disposal) in lesser developed countries. Now, as Dr. Wan Gang, Chinas minister of science and technology says, “We are burning a lot of coal to produce solar panels for Western countries, so that they get clean air and the reputation of a carbon-free economy, while pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are chalked up to our account”.
About 30 million tons of coal, or more than 1% of China’s output of coal, are needed to keep all the polysilicon plants hot.
So, the facts are clear: the carbon footprint left behind by this industry is devastating. Why anyone ever called it “alternative” or “renewable” or worse, even “sustainable” is beyond me.
All right, but we can’t give up so fast on a potentially fantastic idea: to get a clean energy from a free source. So, let’s just fix the few glitches and produce panels and batteries with alternative materials! Here some good news: it’s been done already. There are panels made with a compound called “cad-tel” (short for “cadmium-telluride”. This material allows manufacturers to make very thin-film PV’s, and the compound is said to render the dangerous cadmium inert. (Cad-tel would have to be heated to 1,041 degrees Celsius before it breaks down). Nonetheless, cad-tel is still a hazardous material that needs to be handled with extreme care and the process of extraction, production and distribution still remains severely toxic. And yes, there is a better battery too: it’s still a bit too large but it can store 20 kilowatt-hours and it runs on sodium sulfur (instead of lead-acid). Not that the extraction of sodium-sulfur is environmentally friendly but the battery performs better! Did I mention that both alternatives also cost a lot more? The new sodium-sulfur based battery should be around $2,000. It is not known yet how long these batteries will maintain their storage capacity and efficiency.
So, what’s the solution? Are there any good solutions? Yes, there are good solutions and they are all here already. But only few can see or understand them. The reason for this is that the energy issue, much like all other relevant issues of life, requires a certain level of consciousness and realization before one can understand them. The key to understanding them is to understand the meaning and necessity of a simple term called “sustainability”.
Since every pure term eventually shares the same fate of becoming commercialized and twisted, I want to get right to its true essence:
Real sustainability is based on what could be called “cyclic” thinking, a thought or process that doesn’t start with its beginning and demise but a cycle that works from “cradle to cradle”, from birth to birth. This type of thinking is naturally developed when studying nature in its pure form. Nature does not entertain the concepts of waste or loss. Even apparent waste in nature turns into a valuable resource like food or energy, without any pollution. Truly sustainable thinking does not entertain the concepts of waste or loss. That’s the answer. That’s the solution, and it is already in front of our eyes. How can we see it? By increasing our desire for truly sustainable solutions, whether it is in the field of energy production, economy, social life, or any other aspect of life. The price to turn from a blind materialist to someone who can see solutions is to study nature and give up selfish, insatiable greed. After all, there is no environment friendly solution to human greed. Whether this change is difficult or not makes no difference: if we want to survive, we will have to develop the ability of sustainable or cyclic thinking. And no, this is not another product you can buy. Raising one’s consciousness is the very essence of intelligent life. It’s for free but it is not cheap.
As long as we are addicted consumers who are perfectly gullible to the multi-faceted and expert manipulation by our educational systems, governments, corporations and the media, we can not break out of the toxic cycle we have built around us. So, the question is not whether there is a solution to the current toxic disasters we helped to create, but whether we are willing to purify and raise our consciousness or not.
© Sadhu Govardhan, 2009