In any conversation about the environment, inevitably the word “sustainable” will be thrown around. A lot. Sustainable energy, sustainable practices, sustainable lifestyle. In fact, it’s become such a buzz word that we rarely take the time to consider what it means. When it comes to sustainable energy, however, a little digging reveals that the production and practices behind it aren’t always as “sustainable” as consumers are led to believe.
At first glance, the announcement from the California Energy Commission that a new building code would require all new homes to be outfitted with a system of solar panels seems like a major step toward sustainable energy. Upon a closer look, however, this policy is actually masking the very complicated issues lurking within the solar power industry.
For one, solar companies usually retain ownership of the solar equipment and any renewable energy credits (RECs) produced, even on private homes. RECs are equivalent to one megawatt-hour of electricity, and are a way of tracking and counting the amount of renewable energy produced. This means that if there is any surplus solar energy produced, the solar company can sell those RECs to companies who are trying to comply with state regulations capping total emissions per company, which is especially relevant in California, which has implemented a cap-and-trade program in an effort to reduce the state’s emission levels to those of 1990 by 2020. The sale of RECs dis-incentivizes companies from finding more sustainable methods, meaning that in the scheme of things, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions reduced through the solar panels on houses is negligible at best.
There are also some major drawbacks to solar energy that do not make it quite as renewable as consumers are led to believe. For one, the production of solar panels requires some toxic chemicals, primarily hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone to “clean and purify the semiconductor surface”. That being said, there are regulations in place in the United States to protect workers from negative impacts of working with those materials, but China is by far the leader in all aspects of solar production. Consequently, the workers producing the vast majority of the solar panels that would be installed in California would not be subject to U.S. regulations, and the increased demand coming as a result of this legislation would endanger the health of countless workers.
And perhaps most shockingly, the production of solar panels is hardly environmentally friendly. For instance, China’s solar plants are primarily powered by coal, meaning that the production of solar panels is emitting greenhouse gases, at a rate two times higher than plants in Europe do. And it’s not just the energy required to produce solar panels. In China, the company Jinko Solar was allegedly disposing of hazardous byproducts into a local river. While there are specific regulations preventing this from happening in the United States and Europe, the data on the environmental impacts of solar companies is foggy at best, due to the relatively young nature of the industry.
Solar panels also require earth metals, such as tellurium, tin, indium, hafnium, gallium, silver, cadmium, and selenium. Tellurium alone is only found in 0.0000001 percent of the Earth’s crust. Furthermore, China controls 97 percent of the world’s rare earth production, and given the recent tariffs imposed on China by the United States, there is a strong possibility that access to these materials will be even more difficult for American companies in the near future. This further bolsters the burgeoning Chinese monopoly and makes it even less likely that the production of solar panels will be sustainable anytime soon. Plus, because the solar panel industry is so young, there is not really a market for recycling them yet, which means that massive amounts of these rare earth metals go to waste when solar panels are thrown away. There are programs and companies beginning to emerge, but the metals are integrated throughout the devices in very small quantities, making the process to remove them difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
Finally, our current energy infrastructure simply isn’t equipped for renewable energy on a large scale. Because solar power depends on sunlight, it still requires connection to some form of traditional power plant that can make up for the difference when sunlight doesn’t produce enough energy. However, these plants are only used intermittently, which makes them unattractive to private investors. As a result, the more solar energy is implemented, the more money the government will have to supply in subsidies. Obviously this isn’t a sustainable model, and it’s possible to improve it, but it would require gradual change both in terms of technological advancements and in terms of how energy is used and priced.
As UCSD students, we are told over and over again that our campus is leading in sustainable energy efforts. A glance at the Clean Energy page proudly proclaims that “a 30-megawatt natural-gas-fired combined heat and power system…provides 85 percent of the campus’s annual electricity needs,” but nowhere does it mention that natural gas is a fossil fuel that is extracted from rock layers deep within the earth’s surface, which are fractured in order to extract it, before it is transported via pipelines. This process also leads to harmful byproducts also distributed via pipelines, which requires clearing land and can result in methane leaks. Furthermore, while natural gas does release less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, it is still a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
As far as our solar power goes, there is little to no information about where our solar panels are produced or if those panels have any leftover RECs and/or where those credits go.
The fact of the matter is there are no truly sustainable human practices as of now. Of course solar power and other forms of renewable energy are a starting point, but they’re just that. There is more work to be done, but it will never be started if we as consumers, citizens, and students don’t stay informed about the truth behind these products and the legislation associated with them.
Paige Prudhon is the Opinion Editor for The Triton.