Solar Power: There is No Free Lunch

Solar Project to Help New Jersey Pipeline
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Just like electric vehicles (EV) and wind turbines, solar panels are born with a carbon debt. Once they are in place and creating power, they are wonderful things. They can create power without any emissions, but before they can be considered truly green, they have to pay off that pesky carbon debt. It is impossible to have EVs, wind power or solar power without the fossil fuel industry. It just isn’t possible; for solar panels, here is why:

Solar panels are made up of these basic parts:

  • Silicon solar cells
  • Metal frames, typically aluminum
  • Glass sheets for casings
  • 12v wire
  • Bus wire
  • Plexiglass

It’s getting a little warm in here

You’ve heard of Silicon Valley? Silicon is what makes your smartphone, laptop and other electronics possible. It’s also what makes solar power possible. Silicon is an element with one of the highest melting and boiling points there is: 2,577° F to melt and 5,909° F to boil. Polycrystalline solar cells require silicon to be melted. It’s going to require some serious power – power provided by natural gas or coal. While we’re talking about melting, the glass needed for the sheet casings is produced with high heat, as well. The metal frame also falls under that high heat umbrella. That’s three components requiring fossil fuels in order to exist.

Another solar panel component we can thank the fossil fuel industry for is plexiglass. Plexiglass is made from plastics, and plastics are a petroleum creation. Four down, let’s move our view outward a little.

Move over environment, solar needs your space 

For an equal output, solar and wind power require 90-100 times more space than natural gas. That is 90-100 times more land cleared for the construction and placement of a solar farm. All that cleared acreage can have a lasting effect on native plants and animals. Some solar farms may also use huge amounts of local groundwater to keep the panels clean and the turbines cool. If it’s in an arid area, the loss of all that groundwater could be catastrophic for the local environment. Solar power towers (solar farms that capture sunlight, concentrate it and aim it at a tower) can kill native birds and insects that fly into the beams.

Always pay your debts

That’s a rather large carbon debt to be paid. We haven’t even gotten to the fact that most solar panel components are manufactured in China, where there are extraordinarily low environmental standards. Then the parts are transported here on huge fuel-burning ships, and they are distributed throughout the country on fuel-burning trucks. Don’t forget the fuel-burning equipment needed to clear cut the land and install the panels. Yes, that is a mighty large debt indeed.