Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The dirty reality behind solar power

Interesting article by Stephen Chen from the 10 September issue of the South China Morning Post (free 14 day trial subscription required).

Far from being "free energy from the sun" as witlessly stupid (or just plain dishonest) greenies claim, making solar panels requires huge amounts of energy from the burning of coal or gas, and produces a range of toxic byproducts.

Chen refers to a picture of a beeming Tony Blair at a Chinese manufacturing plant producing solar panels to power street lights for the world's poor and asks an inconvenient question, ie, does Mr Blair know that 40 kilograms of coal had to be burned just to produce the single one metre by one and a half metre panel he was holding?

Now, on its own, 40 kilos doesn't sound like a lot. But consider this - that 40 kilos of coal burned at even the most inefficient of China's power stations would produce 130 kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to keep "a 22 watt LED light bulb beaming 12 hours a day for 30 years. A solar panel is designed to last just 20 years."

To produce the 10kg of polysilicon required to make a one kilowatt solar panel would require two tonnes of coal to be burned, and yet if that coal was burned in a power station it would produce far more electricity than the solar panel ever would.

Sorry, but this is supposed to make sense?

We burn lots and lots of coal, producing carbon dioxide emissions, to make solar panels that only generate small amounts of power for a whopping great carbon footprint?

Not that I think that that footprint actually means anything, but the whole reason this idiotically inefficient and expensive technology is being promoted is supposedly to fight friggen global warming by reducing carbon emissions!

And Jian Shuisheng , a professor of optical technology at Beijing Jiaotong University, estimates that it will take 30 million tonnes of coal to keep the ovens of all of China's polysilicon plants hot.

Now 30 million tonnes of coal does sound rather a lot to me and - this is the really important point - it is really doubtful that the solar panels produced will in fact save as much in terms of carbon emissions as was used to make them.

This is a con job, pure and simple.

China's minister of science and technology, Dr Wan Gang, also notes that "the mainland was burning a lot of coal to produce solar panels for Western countries. "Developed countries get clean air and the reputation of a carbon-free economy, while pollution and greenhouse gas emission are chalked up to our account," Wan said. "That's a bit unfair.""

But hey, isn't that what buying carbon credits is all about, with rich westerners paying poor people so they can still live extravagant lifestyles, but feel holier-than-thou at the same time?

Same-same with solar panels. It's all about the appearance of caring, not the actual reality.

The People's Daily recently reported that Asia's largest solar power plant was to be built in Yunnan province, with a capacity of 166 megawatts.

Mr Chen asks "If two tonnes of coal is needed to produce a one-kilowatt solar panel, how big will the plant's carbon footprint be?"

Not to forget too the 40% of the polysilicon that will be discarded as non-recyclable waste as it's ground down to the required thinness.

Then there's the chlorine. It is used at virtually every stage of the manufacturing process, producing toxic chemicals like silicon tetrachloride and lung-eating trichlorosilane.

I've referred before to the method that many Chinese factories use in dealing with silicon tetrachloride - take it into neighbouring villages and dump it on the ground.

That's one of the reasons why Chinese made panels are so "cheap." Though in reality they are just not as expensive as those made in the West. They still cost thousands of dollars each and, as people are finding out, do not produce savings that will offset this cost very quickly, if at all.

On any sane and rational reckoning, solar power is indeed expensive and inefficient.

And it comes at a high environmental cost.

Posted via email from Garth's posterous

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