The Dirty Secrets Behind Solar Power

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

Not far from my house in San Francisco, Shell Energy North America is preparing to erect a solar array in one of the foggiest urban microclimates on earth. In this deal, which the Wall Street Journal identifies as a “victory” for the oil company, $19.5 million will flow away from public programs to subsidize the construction.

As concerned citizens, we have an ethical obligation to critically assess the green credentials of energy firms who have a vested interest in promoting their wares. Solar cells may be marketed as green, but unfortunately we are now finding that they are harmful to the environment and human prosperity for several reasons.

First, there’s no evidence that solar cells are a zero carbon, or even a low carbon, energy technology. A study in Nature Climate Change by University of Oregon researcher Richard York, analyses 50 years of energy data and concludes that solar cells likely don’t offset fossil fuel or carbon footprints in practice. Solar cells rely on fossil fuels for mining, fabrication, installation, and maintenance. They also require conventional power plants to run along side them at all times, or storage mechanisms such as batteries, which impose additional layers of environmental impacts.

Furthermore, the photovoltaic industry is one of the fastest growing emitters of hexafluoroethane (C2F6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), three greenhouse gasses that have a global warming potential 10,000 to 24,000 times higher than CO2 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (The industry uses these gasses for cleaning sensitive manufacturing equipment.) In 2011, the CEO of Praxair, a major supplier of industrial gasses, opened the company’s annual report with a letter that highlighted the photovoltaic industry as one of its most impressive growth sectors.

Solar cell modules themselves are hardly clean. Solar cells contain heavy metals that can leach into groundwater when disposed at the end of their lifecycle. Photovoltaic manufacturers also employ toxic and explosive compounds that can lead to unintended health risks for workers and local residents around the facilities that mine raw materials and manufacture solar components. Upon a closer look at solar cell lifecycles, scientists are discovering the same types of short- and long-term harms that environmentalists have historically rallied against.

It takes power to make power. We humans use dirty fossil fuels because their energy is dense, portable, storable, fungible, and transformable into other products such as fertilizers and pesticides. When we expend those finite resources to build solar arrays, we are left with energy that is not dense, but diffuse. Solar energy is not readily portable, storable, fungible, or transformable. These limitations and their associated environmental impacts aren’t easily measured and so they typically do not show up in official solar analyses.

The apparent thrift of solar cells is also a slight of hand. To begin, China, Germany, The Unites States, and other countries heavily subsidize solar cell production, which makes solar cells seem more affordable than they actually are. Next, the solar industry generally highlights the cost of polysilicon and the technical components of solar cells, but these represent less than half the cost of an installed solar system. The larger costs arise from installation, maintenance, insurance, as well as expenses that accrue through operating and maintaining concurrent power plants or battery backup. Additionally, recent research shows that newer thin film technologies degrade more rapidly than older models, offsetting much of the presumed benefit.

Since we were children, we've been promised by educators, parents, environmental groups, and television reporters that solar cells are on the cusp of cleaning up the power grid. Today, the only difference is that these story lines are funded through the glossy PR campaigns of General Electric, Shell, and other energy firms. Even if solar cells were massively more efficient and less expensive, they might only serve to expand energy supplies and eventually accelerate overall energy demand if history is any guide.

Solar cells shine brightly within the glossy pages of environmental magazines, but real-world experience reveals a scattered collection of side effects and limitations that are not scaling into attractive realities.

The real clean energy is less energy. If we wish to leave a smaller footprint on the earth and back away from resource scarcity we should develop strategies to use far less energy overall, not offer payouts to energy conjurers.

Any number of conservation strategies offer far higher dividends than solar cell investments. A shift toward energy taxes could help reduce fossil fuel use while filling public coffers rather than the pockets of Big Oil. Or for no net cost at all, we could support strategies to passively bring our homes and commercial buildings into sync with the sun's energy rather than work against it. We could question growth in energy production, economy, and population. All of these initiatives are left underrepresented as we unwittingly rush to celebrate energy firms who are building the next round of ecological disaster machines.

Ozzie Zehner is the author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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