June 29, 2010

Solar Not Quite As Green As Touted

For the most part, I think that solar power generation is part of the wave of the future.  It isn't always reliable (clouds and night) and so far it isn't super-efficient, but it's getting there.  But one advantage of solar power that we are supposed to believe in is that it has little to no environmental impact.  Well, think again.  Its use of fresh water -- a semi-renewable resource from a global perspective, perhaps, but not one that can be easily recaptured in process -- as well as a greater-than-you-might-expect visual and terrain impact are significant environmental issues.  Not as serious as oil slicks larger than some nations in the Gulf of Mexico, to be sure, but also not a "zero impact" technology. 

The author is clearly a fan of photovoltaic solar generation, which is a great technology, and decentralizing it among a lot of locations and on existing structures, so that its overall environmental impact is minimized.  Great thoughts, but even that is not without environmental impact, because electricity has to get from its generation location to its ultimate use, which is mainly in urban areas that will need to import power from elsewhere, so we're still talking about a lot of wires to move electricity around.  And photovoltaic solar generation is pretty much the most expensive electricity out there, looking at a watt-for-watt cost and taking into account the cost of producing the materials necessary to come up with electricity over the lifespan of the generation facility.  So while perhaps the most environmentally pure, it is also among the least economically desirable ways to go.  For the time being, at least, economy is a bigger driver in this arena than ecology.

This is just a reminder that there is almost no way to generate electricity without some negative environmental impact.  There is no solution that does not involve some kind of a trade-off.  We should of course continue to figure out cheaper ways to make photovoltaic solar generators.  We should also continue to develop wind farms.  But for the big, reliable power needs of an advanced industrial economy like ours, at the end of the day our short- and mid-term power needs will only be met by nuclear fission.

1 comment:

His Lordship The Gun-Toting Atheist said...

... or fusion, if the North Koreans can explain to us how they achieved it :)