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Solar energy may not be as "green" as we thought

February 12, 2013
As Washington joins in with Duke Energy in building solar farms to generate electricity we learn that solar energy is not a "green," or environmentally friendly as we have been led to believe. It turns out that the manufacture of solar panels generates considerable waste and pollution. MSNBC reports:
Homeowners on the hunt for sparkling solar panels are lured by ads filled with images of pristine landscapes and bright sunshine, and words about the technology's benefits for the environment — and the wallet.

What customers may not know is that there's a dirtier side.

While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.

To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.

The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar's carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product's impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.

After installing a solar panel, "it would take one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state," said Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose State University environmental studies professor who conducts carbon footprint analyses of solar, biofuel and natural gas production.

The waste from manufacturing has raised concerns within the industry, which fears that the problem, if left unchecked, could undermine solar's green image at a time when companies are facing stiff competition from each other and from low-cost panel manufacturers from China and elsewhere.

"We want to take the lessons learned from electronics and semiconductor industries (about pollution) and get ahead of some of these problems," said John Smirnow, vice president for trade and competitiveness at the nearly 500-member Solar Energy Industries Association.

The increase in solar hazardous waste is directly related to the industry's fast growth over the past five years — even with solar business moving to China rapidly, the U.S. was a net exporter of solar products by $2 billion in 2010, the last year of data available. The nation was even a net exporter to China.

New companies often send hazardous waste out of their plants because they have not yet invested in on-site treatment equipment, which allows them to recycle some waste.
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  1. reply print email
    Joining with duke energy..not at all
    February 13, 2013 | 07:16 PM

    Im no spokesman for washington utilities and i make these comments based on what i know to be true and not on what they tell me,,The comment that washington joins duke in building solar farms makes the reader believe that washington utilities is investing in the solar farm.. This is not true and is very misleading.. Washington utilities has no monetary investment in this solar farm at all.. We did not team with duke energy to create this and in turn could not refuse for it to be added to our system. this is all duke energy,, in which they were strong armed by the federal government to build various so called green energy generating plants or face massive taxes.. The taxes charged to them for not doing so must be tremendous based on the fact that this farm cost an estimated 40 million dollars with an estimated project payoff of 15 years.. ridiculous in my opinion.. But this is the obama days... I have'nt personally done my reasearch about the issue but it's my understanding that the new green advancements actually cause more greenhouse gasses to produce the product than the actual product will save through out it's lifespan.. does'nt suprise me if it's true.. it's all part of the global warming effect that is fictitous.. My opinion is the planet is a living breathing thing that goes through the same natural changes as the human body.. They've only been keeping a detailed record of the weather for alittle over 100 years,so how can they say that the climate has changed so much due to irresponsible population and polution of the earth ?? can't it be contributed to natural evolution of the planet ?? I don't know,,Maybe im just a disalusioned idiot.. I guess by their standards we all are...

    city lineman

    Editor's response. We do not believe it is a misrepresentation to report that WEU is partnering with Duke. That is precisely what Duke told us (and the public at their local presentation. They said they would not have seleted this location had not local officials been supportive. The current is actually being sold to Electri-Cities and then resold to Washington even though the project connects directly to WEU. Our question is, if WEU was going to purchase the power why did they not do so directly from Duke rather than having Electri-Cities in the middle. The answer is that WEU is under an exclusive contract to purchase power only from ENCMPA. This project clearly indicates the folly of that arrangement, in our opinion. The lack of competition for wholesale power is a big obstacle to cheaper power for residential and commercial accounts and does more to hurt economic development than anything we know of.

  2. reply print email
    get the facts straight
    February 13, 2013 | 09:19 PM

    As for what duke energy tells people,,then thats them.. I know we have no tie to this farm other than it is on our system.. As far as local officials agreeing on this deal them local officials would include your beloved beaufort county commisioners as well as the city council.. The city did not buy the power directly from duke energy because of the poor decision from the elected officials back when the deal was made. people put in office by the people,,,All i can say is people need to vote better,,that would be why we have obama in office now..As far as the hurting of economic developement goes the city,s residential rates are actually cheaper than progress energy whom we ultimatly buy our power from in the first place.. People will always complain about the bills they have to pay,,power,,phone,,gas,,any utilitie bill as far as that goes,,if you have to have it people will complain about it.. All i can say is do your research before complaining and don't bash the companies just because you hate to pay a certain u

    City lineman
  3. reply print email
    i got cut
    February 13, 2013 | 09:24 PM

    utility bill.. Noone likes to pay them but we all have to.. We are'nt the cheapest around and we,re not the most expensive,,but we are competitve... Don't believe it...move to belhaven, newbern,,etc,etc,,.. there are alot more places more expensive than here..
    P.S. Once again do your research,,it's not ENCMPA,,,,it's NCEMPA

    city lineman

    Editor's response: Higher electricity costs are a major cost factor in doing business. If the rate is higher, even "just a little" than it is a few miles down the road where is a new business going all other things being equal?

  4. reply print email
    wholesale power
    February 13, 2013 | 09:39 PM

    As far as the whole competition on wholesale power,,,just look back a few years at clifornia,s deregulation of power.. Major blackouts,,and skyrocketing out of control power prices.. Just look to the past to see what the future holds.... That fiasco is why our government figures rejected deregulation of the electric industry..

    city lineman

    Editor's response: But consider the cell phone industry.

  5. reply print email
    California utilities were never deregulated
    February 14, 2013 | 09:31 AM

    California's utility regulations were rewritten. Regulation never ceased. The rewrite simply allowed a different group of politically empowered crony capitalists to take a bite out of customers.

    California is the single best example on how not to do just about everything.

    Warren Smith
  6. reply print email
    California 'deregulation' wasn't a true deregulation
    February 14, 2013 | 03:04 PM

    Read Dan Yergin, while respected on energy subjects.

    PJM is a great example of a deregulated market in the US, and they aren't the only ones either.

    The 2001 California electricity energy crisis was a 'crisis by design'. California deregulated the generation side of the industry creating merchant generators that sold on the spot market. However, they regulated the retail side never allowing consumer prices to follow the spot market and thus keeping them low in times of tighter supply. Lack of generation build out and droughts in the Pacific northwest hydro power region caused an actual electricity shortage that caused electricity prices to spike, and were exacerbated somewhat by some speculators taking advantage of the problem. The government then decided it should have dubbed long term agreements for power, did so, and assumed the bill. California went from an $8bil surplus to a multibillion deficit. Much of today's debt in California is a result of that single action. A simple solution would have just been to raise rates at the time.

  7. reply print email
    Private the profit(s), Socialize the cost(s) or wastes out of st
    February 14, 2013 | 08:04 PM

    7 words, Fukushima, 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl, Black lung disease, Ozone, smog, coal ash,

    If you turn anything into a commodity, it gets cheapened . . . whether a Hollywood movies, or Photovoltaic modules, then it is not about clean energy,investors believe developers who don't want to invest a local mechanism for treatment of semiconductor waste(s). All this, it about a bubble, a Wall street mechanism, where one can privatize the profit(s) and socialize the cost(s). Thins films PV generate alot more waste that the traditional silicon wafer, but that where the industry is headed because once the bankers and finaciers took over, corruption took over - as it always does, when your economic system is based on debt and fiat currency. Duh

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