The Dark Side of Solar

Earlier this week we discussed the drawbacks of hydroelectricity. In my last post I touched on potential drawbacks of solar farms. Before I continue, I will emphasize that I am a staunch believer that renewable energy is the future of our energy grid and the key to a habitable planet sustaining a wide biodiversity. However, as I have stated in previous posts, I believe that having a discussion, to address both sides of the issue is vital to solving our problems and finding the most suitable course of action. Solar or photovoltaic energy is a phenomenal innovation and I hope it will be at the forefront of domestic energy production. Solar energy is also the cheapest electricity in the history of, well, electricity. However, there are some drawbacks that need to be considered.

Southwestern willow flycatcher, photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Above I mentioned domestic production of energy via photovoltaic panels, which circumvents the first draw back of utility scale solar energy farms, wildlife habitat loss. In 2020 the United States power grid generated roughly 0.004 billion gigawatts of energy. Secondly, it takes 2.8 acres to produce one gigawatt of energy per year. That would mean that we would need to cover 11.2 million acres of land in solar panels if we were to build an entirely solar energy grid. That is somewhere directly in the middle of the land mass of Maryland and West Virginia. Thinking about utility scale solar farms, it would be intuitive to place these projects in the south western U.S. deserts as the sunshine is strong and consistent with minimal rainfall. However, further destruction of these habitats puts further strain on the populations of the desert tortoise, the devils hole pupfish, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and Amargosa toad, to name a few.

So, would a domestic grid alleviate the land use debacle? Yes, but there are other ways that photovoltaic panels can still contribute to an unsustainable environment. When it comes to tech, the environmental impact is often not secluded to the product itself but also lies in the production process as well as the harvesting of the raw materials necessary to begin the production process. For example, silicon is an integral part of a photovoltaic panel. Silicon needs to be mined as quartz and then processed or as silica sand. Not to get too in depth on this matter, but it is an important factor to consider as the mining of this resource contributes to polluting local wells and ground water as well as polluting the air around the mine. And this is only including one element that makes its way into the finished product and not even beginning to consider the chemicals needed to appropriately process the raw or refined materials into the finished product.

My point here is that we need to consider the costs, other than monetary when designing a renewable grid for the future. There are factors we can alleviate, such as habitat destruction by opting for domestic solar production, and factors that appear to be a sunk cost on the road to progress. I am not saying that it needs to be that way, nor am I saying I have all the answers. I am simply trying to start a conversation in the hope of spreading awareness that can lead to actionable changes. If you would like to continue this conversation, leave a comment down below, or start a conversation of your own.  

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