Solar power's detractors frequently describe solar as "secretly" non-environmentally-friendly. They point to the PV module manufacturing process,
utility-scale arrays' potential impacts to land and wildlife, and
concentrating solar power (CSP) plants' on-site water usage as examples
of attributes that negate the environmental benefits of deploying this
renewable energy source.
But when all of the impacts are
considered and all the costs are tallied, how does solar compare to
other common energy sources? A new report
called "The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Comparing the Hidden Costs of
Power Generation Fuels" suggests that the indirect or externalized costs
of fossil fuels, nuclear power and biomass still outweigh those of
Researchers analyzed solar power and five other
energy sources (biomass, coal, nuclear, natural gas and wind) in several
categories: water impacts, climate change impacts, air pollution
impacts, planning and cost risk, subsidies and tax incentives, land
impacts and other impacts.
The report, prepared by Synapse Energy
Economics Inc. for the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society
Institute and the Environmental Working Group, concluded that "huge
demands on increasingly scarce water are a major hidden cost of a
business-as-usual approach to American electricity generation that needs
to be more fully understood by policymakers and the public."
power, however, did not rank as a prime offender in this critical
water-usage category. Rather, nuclear power, coal-fired power, biomass
and natural gas (obtained via fracking) were called out as particularly
water-intensive energy sources. Open-looped coal-fired power plants, for
instance, use between 20,000 and 50,000 gallons/MWh. Although most of
the water is reclaimed, it is returned at a higher temperature and lower
"By contrast, wind and solar photovoltaic power
requires little water in the electricity generation process," the report
states. "Concentrating solar power requires water for cooling purposes,
but new technologies are placing greater emphasis on dry cooling.
power plants with dry cooling use only around 80 gallons per
megawatt-hour - about a tenth of the low-end estimate for nuclear power
and one-sixth of the low-end estimate for coal-fired power generation,"
the report adds.
Breaking down costs
report summarizes each energy source's hidden costs by assigning a
color-coded level: red (high costs), yellow (moderate costs) or green
(low costs). Solar appears to boast one of the most favorable color-code
profiles of the six energy sources examined.
Both PV and CSP are
deemed to pose low costs (green level) for planning and cost risk,
climate-change impacts, air-pollution impacts and "other impacts."
Naturally, larger projects can present more planning risk than
smaller-scale projects, but because most projects are developed by
non-utility companies, ratepayer risk is reduced.
types of thin-film PV, the usage of toxic cadmium has provoked
criticism. According to the report, one recent study of lifecycle
cadmium emissions for systems using cadmium-telluride modules measured
such emissions to be approximately 0.3 g/GWh.
"The use of heavy
metals in PV cells raises questions about the disposal of panels at the
end of their useful lives," the report warns. "Regulations governing the
handling and recycling of retired PV panels are needed to ensure that
metals do not leach into soil or groundwater."
In response to
these concerns and other considerations, the solar sector has stepped up
recycling efforts in recent years. Earlier this week, for instance,
Tempe, Ariz.-based pv recycling llc and CERES, a Paris-based nonprofit, entered a new partnership agreement to provide module manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe with coordinated recycling services.
subsidies and tax incentives, as well as land impacts, are rated as
moderate. Although distributed-generation rooftop PV occupies no land,
some utility-scale plants have caused concern regarding their impact on
threatened species' habitat, the report notes.
PV ranks ahead of CSP in the water-usage category. Lifetime water
withdrawals for PV are estimated to be between 225 and 520 gallons/MWh,
with thin film generally beating out crystalline silicon. Wet-cooled
parabolic-trough CSP plants may use approximately 1,240 gallons/MWh,
whereas dry-cooled plants may use approximately 290 gallons/MWh.
preliminary findings on CSP water usage "provide useful starting points
for assessing lifecycle CSP water impacts," the report notes, adding
that additional research is needed.
Overall, although the report
does not explicitly call for greater usage of solar power or other
renewable energy sources over others, it strongly encourages utilities,
policymakers and the public to consider more than the more commonly
examined direct costs when evaluating various energy options.
often left out of the equation are a number of important hidden costs …
associated with each generation technology," says Geoff Keith, senior
associate at Synapse Energy Economics, in the report. "While direct
costs (the monetary cost to build and operate a generating plant) are
important to consumers, so too are these indirect costs, whether or not
they can be easily expressed in monetary terms."
SOURCE: SOLAR INDUSTRY