Solar Power Isn’t Perfect, But It’s the Best We’ve Got

You can almost set your watch to it: Every time a new and disruptive technology begins to take hold, the backlash follows. So it is with “The Darker Side of Solar Power“–an article that appeared last week in The Globe and Mail.

Writer Konrad Yakabuski argues that solar carries hidden costs that muddy the technology’s popular perception as a clean and limitless electricity source.

You can almost hear a cackle in the background. Hah! Those guys think they’re so perfect. Let’s take them down a peg!

But here’s the rub: Something has to keep the lights on, and there’s simply no such thing as a clean, reliable, cost-effective–and 100-percent pollution-free–electricity source. It doesn’t exist. This rule applies whether you’re considering fossil fuels, nuclear, or renewable energy. Like many things in this world, power generation is a game of finding the best option, warts and all.

In other words, yes, of course solar carries environmental costs. But the research shows that the technology’s “energy payback”–the length of time a given system has to operate to recover the energy and associated pollution and CO2 that went into making it in the first place–is just a few years.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal don’t actually have an energy payback period. They simply pollute, forever. As for nuclear, a recent Globe and Mailarticle revealed that Canada’s nuclear waste will remain deadly for 400,000 years.

Speaking of waste, what about recycling of solar panels? Solar is growing quickly, but it is just maturing as an industry, and its products are only just beginning to approach middle-age. The vast majority of global PV installations have more than a decade of life left in them. With no moving parts to wear out, they last a long time.

Relative to other industries facing similar “life-cycle” issues–such as computers and cell phones–there isn’t a lot of discarded solar product out there to be dealt with yet. But the solar sector is already on the case. First Solar, the largest U.S.-based panel manufacturer, offers a good example. The company has provided for panel recycling in sales contracts since 2013. Most major manufacturers are following suit.

In September, in collaboration with the Canadian Solar Industries Association and the International Energy Agency in collaboration with the Canadian Solar Industries Association will release a study on solar panel recycling. Its findings will inform national regulations, that will be in place well before the earliest installations hit retirement. Those envisioning mythical mountains of future solar panel garbage might well consider the considerably more toxic waste and destruction associated with other energy sources, such as mountaintop removal coal mining or hydraulic fracturing.

Ontario companies manufactured the vast majority of modules installed in the province to date, in facilities that meet and exceed stringent environmental regulations. This was a direct result of government policy that established a world-class manufacturing base in the province.

Finally, since you’ve read this far, can we talk about climate change? Simply put, solar is one of the best solutions in our toolbox, in fact Ontario will not meet its emissions reductions targets without it. And given the federal government’s stark lack of leadership on the file, without Ontario’s leadership on solar Canada stands almost zero chance of meeting its international commitments.

Nobody ever called solar perfect. But when we look at how the technology stacks up against its fossil and nuclear peers, there’s simply no contest. Solar remains a safe, reliable, scalable, and increasingly affordable solution to our energy challenges. That might not make for a provocative headline, but it is the truth.

This op-ed first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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