Going Green? The Dark Side to Solar Energy

As energy prices increase and dependence on fossil fuels is continually frowned upon, new renewable energy options are constantly being explored. Individuals often look to the Earth for help, and those involved in creating sustainable energy products have focused specifically on the wind and sun.

Issues with Solar Panels

Although solar power is admired and thought of as a possible renewable energy solution, Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, said there are a number of drawbacks to using solar cells.

“There’s little reason to believe that household photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines do much to help the environment,” he said. “They are certainly touted as green, but because of their energy footprint of production, toxins, and numerous limitations, they often merely swap one set of side effects for another.”

Zehner said one problem with solar panels is they contain heavy metals that can leach into groundwater when disposed of.  Manufacturers of photovoltaic equipment also employ toxic and explosive compounds that can lead to unintended health risks for workers and local residents.

Besides being expensive in general, Zehner said costs for solar panels amplify in areas that experience inclement weather patterns such as haze, rain, and freezing temperatures because the panels are so delicate. Additional networks are needed to store daytime energy and provide energy for when the sun doesn’t shine.

Lastly, solar power is not comparable in price to natural gas or coal despite proponents that declare it is, he said. The costs for solar power may appear less pricey on the surface but start to grow when storage and backup methods are introduced.

Recommendations for Consumers

Zehner said residential solar thermal strategies rather than high-tech solar photovoltaic devices hold widespread potential. One such example is a heat pump. Heat pumps concentrate the small portion of warmth in cool air to heat buildings.

Another example is a coiled swimming pool heater, which uses dark tubing and simple optical devices to capture the sun’s rays and heat water, he said. Solar hot water also can power thermal coolers to chill buildings during the summer.

He said the most important improvement could be supporting strategies to bring homes and commercial buildings into sync with the sun's energy rather than working against it.

“A building with windows, rooflines, and walls designed to soak up or deflect the sun's energy in a passive way, will continue to do so unassumingly for generations, even centuries,” he said.

Future Solutions

Zehner said the issue is not about having the technological skills to construct alternative energy societies. Right now, societies are not capable of being powered by alternative energy.

“Clean energy is less energy,” he said. “The best way to get precious renewable energies to meet our needs is to simply need less, a chore that is far more plausible than we might think.”

He said the most efficient residences are found in small lots in older downtown neighborhoods that are close to neighbors, shops, restaurants, and public transit options. The homes are not too big, which decreases construction materials and heating and cooling costs.

The homes contain adequate roof and wall insulation, tight weather stripping, and kitchens with linoleum floors, he said. Appliances are efficient and windows have adjustable shades.

Although the homes are unremarkable, he said they are unremarkably green. There is a correlation between personal satisfaction and living in a walkable neighborhood with such homes.

“Unremarkably green homes make people happy, high-tech homes make them poor,” he said.

About the Author: Alyssa Zandi is an avid reader, crafter, and contributing writer for PM Environmental, an environmental consulting firm. Follow her on Twitter @alyssazandi.

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