It seems counterintuitive that solar power is not the cleanest form of energy. The advertisement for solar power being “green” tricks the consumer into thinking that it’s a no-brainer for the human race to invest in a full transition into solar. This is not the case, for the production of solar panels’ solar cells is harmful to the environment. The process emits greenhouse gasses, and they aren’t nearly as effective when it comes to the energy capacity factor of other cleaner energy production sources. On top of this, the cost and space efficiency of solar farms makes it extremely cumbersome for companies to invest in large solar farms. When the price per watt of the solar panel is scaled up to be comparable to other power sources, the price gap grows exponentially with most of the other energy production.
Everything solar starts with the solar cell. A representative from the Office of Solar Energy Technologies goes over the basics of a solar cell in their article “Solar Photovoltaic Cell Basics.” The solar cell does 1 of three things when it comes into contact with light. It will reflect, absorb, or pass through the cell. Since the cell is composed of semiconductor material, when any of these three scenarios occurs, the light’s energy will transfer to the electrons flowing through the semi-conductor material resulting in an electrical current. This current is then caught by the conductive metals on the solar panel’s grid that then make their way to the electrical grid the solar panel is hooked onto. According to Sara Gambon in “Will Solar Panels Work During A Power Outage,” the solar panels are connected to the main grid the power from the panels will not be utilized during a power outage. The most common solar cell semiconductor is silicon derived from quartz. According to the representative silicon “represents approximately 95% of the [solar cell] modules sold today” and has an environmentally harmful process to produce.
The process of producing solar panels releases harmful toxins into the environment. The production of a solar panel starts at the solar cell. They begin the resource required to actually produce a solar cell is quartz, which is dangerous to the workers who have extracted from the earth. Dustin Mulvaney claims that Silicon gas emitted from unrefined crystals can “put the miners, [and others who interact with it] at risk of the lung disease silicosis”. Along with the silicosis, mining, in general, has never been a risk-free process even with machinery. Next comes the refinement of quartz crystals into metallurgical-grade silicon which requires casting them into a large furnace which Mulvaney says “takes a lot of energy” in the form of thermal power to keep running. These furnaces release carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere while operating. Mulvaney continues to explain how the next step in refinement creates polysilicon but releases silicon tetrachloride. Silicon tetrachloride or SiCl4 is a very toxic compound that will release hydrochloric acid and emit harmful fumes if it comes into contact with water. Many companies simply throw away this toxic compound, which contacts water commonly. The polysilicon from this process is then manufactured into a solar cell, before being placed in the panel
Another factor in Solar is the amount of space they take up. Solar panels are big, and there have to be a ton of them to be efficient. According to Mikayla Rumph in “How Much Power is 1 Gigawatt,” it would take 3,125,000 photovoltaic (traditional solar farm) solar panels to produce 1 gigawatt. Given that one of these panels is 78 inches by 39 inches, the size a solar farm has to be to produce the amount of power of a nuclear plant (1 gigawatt) is 1388.88 acres. In comparison, a nuclear plant takes up 50 acres. Solar power takes up 30 times as much space as the second largest (in terms of space taken up) conventional source of power. On top of the amount of space this takes up, transporting 3.1 million solar panels is no walk in the park.
The sun isn’t shining all day, so solar panels only work at their max capacity when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. That is 24.9% of the time in a year. In order for these plants to work at that capacity, they need a large backup power source to stay online, and such storage isn’t currently available on the grid. Solar farms turn to pair with reliable baseload power like coal with a capacity factor of 40.2%, gas with 56.6%, or nuclear with 92.5%, to stay afloat when the sun is not shining. Energy capacity is an important factor when it comes to efficiency. According to Mike Mueller in “Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close,” solar requires three and a half solar farms equal in price to one nuclear plant to match that said nuclear plant’s energy capacity. There is no place on earth that a solar panel would work at a higher capacity than any other energy producer, and every other energy producer can be built on almost any land. To make up for this more solar panels have to be produced.
Price per watt is the amount of money it takes to produce 1 watt of energy. Solar’s price per watt can vary from $0.70 and $2.20. Like other products buying in bulk costs less. If a company wanted to create a 1-gigawatt solar farm and they were buying at $0.70 per watt it would cost 700 million dollars. However, if they bought at $2.20 per watt it would cost 2.2 billion dollars. The price varies significantly depending on. This price doesn’t factor in the price of the 1.3 thousand acres or the price to install each and every panel. For comparison nuclear cost 25 cents per 1000 watts or 0.025 per watt. Solar always comes out as more expensive. The extreme number of panels required for large-scale production is the largest drawback.
Solar power’s attributes are affected by numerous factors, and counterintuitively, cause many non-green results in the production process and the maintaining of solar farms. Like many other man-made appliances, solar panels have an expiration date. After 25-30 years of use, they have to be disposed of due to the effects of the weather.
To produce power in the first place, solar panels have solar cells that need to receive sunlight in order to function. According to the author of “Solar Photovoltaic Cell Basics,” When the light comes into contact with a solar cell it causes the energy from the light to transfer into electrons. The extra energy these electrons have from the sun allows them to flow through the semi-conductive material creating an electrical current. Since the current is also in contact with the conductive metal it causes the current to transfer directly into the main grid hooked up to the solar panel. Since “95% of the [solar cell] modules” have a base element of silicon the harmful process to manufacture silicon is widely used in solar panel production.
The production of Solar Panels is dangerous to those involved and releases harmful substances into the environment, which is the opposite goal of clean energy. In “Solar Energy Isn’t Always As Green As You Think” Dustin Mulvaney states that the quartz used to begin the process is extracted from the earth, the miners are put “at risk of… …the lung disease silicosis.” Upon further research, the American Lung Association claims that particles coming off the quartz crystals, when breathed in, remotely cause “permanent lung scarring, called pulmonary fibrosis” which eventually harms the inhaler’s ability to breathe. This scarring takes years to develop but can go unnoticed for just as long. The next harm comes from the casting process. Mulvaney continues to explain how the furnaces used to cast the quartz into silicon result in harmful substances being released into the atmosphere. To power, these furnaces require large amounts of energy which in most cases comes from other non-clean power sources that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Mulvaney explains how the furnaces themselves also release carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. These gasses trap heat in the atmosphere which is the cause of global warming. Turning the refined quartz from silicon to polysilicon results in 3-4 times as much silicon tetrachloride being created as a byproduct. Companies that cannot afford to recycle silicon tetrachloride throw all of it away. This is where the byproduct comes into contact with water, resulting in harmful fumes being released and acidifying the surrounding soil. Mulvaney gives a real-world example of this from 2011 where “hydrofluoric acid used by [a] company… …contaminated river water, killing hundreds of fish and dozens of pigs”.
The energy capacity of any power source is the amount of time each year in which the system runs at max efficiency. Factors such as resource consumption, human error, and throughput influence this efficiency. Since the earth is spinning the sun is never in the same place in the sky. This is an example of a throughput limitation and directly causes solar panels’ energy capacity to fluctuate all day. The only time a solar panel can work at one hundred percent efficiency is when the sun is at its highest point which according to Mike Mueller in “Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close” is only 24.9% of the time. The remote cause of this percentage is that companies are required to produce and install 4 times as many solar panels to get the efficiency of 1 running at 100%. Furthermore, this low energy capacity requires solar farms to draw power from alternative power plants with higher energy capacities. Solar power uses nongreen energy to stay green. The fact that 4 times as many panels are needed leads to 4 times the production, leading to 4 times as much being released into the environment or atmosphere. This also drives the price up to 4 times as much, making it less affordable than other conventional energy producers.
Solar panels don’t last forever. As a result of thermal cycling, long-term exposure to damp heat, freezing, and UV exposure, solar panels can degrade by 0.5% or 3% a year according to too John David Baldwin in his article “What causes solar panel performance to decline”. Baldwin continues to speak about an ironic process in which the Busbars used to increase the efficiency of a solar cell actually cause the solar cell to degrade. He quotes Kelly Pickerel, the editor of Solar Power World, when she states, “The soldering points put stress on the solar cell and can lead to microcracking.” Standard use panels have a “life spawn [of] about 25 to 30 years” according to Nate Berg in “What will happen to solar panels after their useful lives are over?”. Berg quotes Garvin Heath, a scientist at the NREL, that eventually the degradation of the panels is going to cause a “waste management issue.” The lifespan ending on the first generation of solar panels, and the sheer number of panels will produce a global electronic waste issue.
Looking at solar power as a conventional energy source on a national level causes the price of Solar panels to decrease. According to Andrew Sendy “a fair price for … … a solar system in 2021 is between $2.60 per watt and $3.20 per watt,” but when buying on an industrial level the price drops from roughly $3.20 to roughly $0.70. Because of the capacity factor, it requires 3.1 million solar panels to produce a wattage equal to that of one nuclear plant. The space required to fit this many solar panels is over one thousand three hundred acres, causing the price to skyrocket after factoring in the cost of the land. When compared to the price of other conventional energy sources that don’t release harmful substances during the production process, solar always comes out on the bottom because of the countless other price changes that come with the use.
Compared to other conventional power sources solar power is not the greenest, cheapest, or most cost-effective energy producer. Solar is often advertised as the greenest source of energy because it draws power from the everlasting sun, but these advertisements fail to mention the harmful production process and short lifetime of the Solar Panels. Greenhouse gasses are released from the furnaces used to cast quartz, and the furnaces use dirty energy to run. Not only that, after production Solar panels only last for 25-30 years which means the production process, along with the payment, has to occur 2-3 times per generation. The dead panels also have to be disposed of in a clean way for the energy to be considered green or it would be just as green as coal. Compared to other conventional power sources like nuclear, or geothermal which do not have to be replaced, solar falls behind. Its cost-effectiveness pities in comparison to all other forms of energy. Coming in at a measly 24.9% energy capacity. For instance, coal power has an energy capacity of 42%, gas at 57%, and nuclear at an energy capacity of 92.5%. Solar is false green energy, it is cost-inefficient, and panels have to be thrown away and replaced after 25 to 30 years.
It’s easy for one to bask in all the positives of solar power because that’s all the average consumer sees. Even somebody who researches solar will only find articles on pro-solar power unless they specifically search for articles against it. A prime example of a pro-solar article is “Why there is no competition in the nuclear vs. renewables debate” by Laura E. Williamson, a manager at Renewables 21. In this article, Williamson outlines and supports an article from Paul Brown called “Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy.’” The title of the article Williamson is reviewing is already factually incorrect. According to a statistic from energy.gov nuclear power is near “3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants,” making the claim that it cannot rival solar false. The majority of the argument across both of these articles is about the cost of solar being so cheap. Paul claims, “wind saved three times as much, and solar double.” If the reader wanted to fact-check this statement, they would have to go down the rabbit hole of three poorly labeled links that ultimately lead to the world nuclear report website that ironically not only supports nuclear power but doesn’t have any of the information they claimed to be true. Williamson’s next argument for solar is that “nuclear plants take from 5 to 17 years longer to build” than solar power would. The biggest problem with this statistic is the 12-year gap between the high and low end. The reader cannot work with the upper bounds. Without any context, it looks like an outlier. According to “Process of Building Nuclear Power Plants” by KiJung Park of Stanford, it “takes five to seven years to build a large nuclear unit”. Perhaps Williamson’s 17 is a typo meant to say 7. Along with this clear statistical mistake, Williamson fails to mention the 25–30-year life span each and every installed solar panel inevitably faces. It would be helpful to the reader to have something to compare the 5 to 7 to 17 years of construction to, instead of just having big numbers thrown into their face with no context. Furthermore, there are multiple instances in which Williamson makes a statement that requires evidence but doesn’t include the evidence. For instance, she claims that “dependence on water is not a good idea” for nuclear. Her reasoning is climate change and sea levels rising. According to this logic, nuclear is worse than solar because it depends on the most abundant resource on the planet and doesn’t include a statistic or outside claim to back it up. Another instance of this is when she states that “processing of the raw material (uranium) required for nuclear fuel is hugely energy-intensive” but leaves out why this is (if at all) considered a problem. The process can be powered by the already existing nuclear plants generating “around 1 gigawatt of power per plant” according to energy.gov. She also makes a bold statement that “when a government subsidizes nuclear power, funds are effectively being removed from other basic services.” There is no data given to tell what governments did this or where this information is even coming from.
All of the arguments Williamson and Paul make to support solar are made by trying to shoot down nuclear. Not once in the article does Williamson make a claim as to why Solar is good, only why others are bad. This severely weakens the entire argument. The reader has to also know why the author’s alternative is better. Because of the lack of information to back up the few points they do make avid readers don’t get anything out of the article. Williamson and Paul also never mention or give a solution to the harmful production process or solar waste once the lifespan is up. According to Conor Prendergast, there is “80 million tons of solar waste projected by 2050,” and currently there is no effective way to deal with it. Without acknowledging these facts or trying to refute than, the reader can infer Williamson and Paul are either purposefully avoiding them or completely unaware of them.
Solar power as a conventional power source doesn’t have enough positives to outweigh its negatives so Williamson’s and Paul’s articles are constructed in a way to only look at the negatives of other conventional power. Seeing the downsides of other sources makes solar look like a better option. To keep the reader on their side of the argument, Williamson and Paul purposely dodge the major negative points of solar power and throw unsupported claims that at a first glance greatly support their argument. It’s clear that these authors wrote their articles for users that wouldn’t dig deeper into whether or not the information is accurate or not.
Berg, Nate, et al. “What Will Happen to Solar Panels after Their Useful Lives Are over?” Greenbiz, https://www.greenbiz.com/article/what-will-happen-solar-panels-after-their-useful-lives-are-over#:~:text=But%20the%20solar%20panels%20generating,t%20long%20from%20being%20retired.
Brown, Paul. “Nuclear Power ‘Cannot Rival Renewable Energy’.” The Energy Mix, 14 Jan. 2020, https://climatenewsnetwork.net/nuclear-power-cannot-rival-renewable-energy/.
Gambone, Sara. “Will Solar Panels Work during a Power Outage?” Commercial and Residential Solar Panel Installer, https://www.paradisesolarenergy.com/blog/will-solar-panels-work-during-a-power-outage.
“Learn about Silicosis.” American Lung Association, https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/silicosis/learn-about-silicosis.
Mueller, Mike. “Nuclear Power Is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close.” Energy.gov, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/nuclear-power-most-reliable-energy-source-and-its-not-even-close.
Mulvaney, Dustin. “Solar Energy Isn’t Always as Green as You Think.” IEEE Spectrum, IEEE Spectrum, 29 July 2021, https://spectrum.ieee.org/solar-energy-isnt-always-as-green-as-you-think.
Park, KiJung. Process of Building Nuclear Power Plant, http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2017/ph241/park-k2/.
Prendergast, Conor. “Solar Panel Waste: The Dark Side of Clean Energy.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 14 Dec. 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/solar-panel-waste-the-dark-side-of-clean-energy.
Rumph, Mikayla. “How Much Power Is 1 Gigawatt?” Energy.gov, https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt.
Sendy, Andrew. “How Much Will Solar Panels Cost to Install on Your Specific Home in 2021?” Solar Reviews, Solar Reviews, 25 June 2021, https://www.solarreviews.com/solar-panel-cost.
“Solar Photovoltaic Cell Basics.” Energy.gov, https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-photovoltaic-cell-basics.
“What Causes Solar Panel Performance to Decline.” Solar United Neighbors, 12 Apr. 2019, https://www.solarunitedneighbors.org/news/what-causes-solar-panel-performance-to-decline/.
Williamson, Laura E. “Expert’s Pick: Why There Is No Competition in the Nuclear vs. Renewables Debate.” REN21, 30 Apr. 2020, https://www.ren21.net/nuclear-vs-renewables-debate/.