Sustainability has become a priority in recent years as individuals and corporations begin to question the continued viability of extracting natural resources, something that until recently we had taken for granted as an endless bounty. Recycling initiatives have ceased to be an idealistic precaution and are rapidly becoming a necessity for continued industry as resources dwindle and environmental damage surmounts. At the turn of the century we spoke of lowering our environmental footprint to prevent the possibility of climate change where now, just years later, we find ourselves arguing whether the damage done can be reversed.
Pioneering alternate sources of energy has been integral to the green revolution and lowering our impact on the environment with wind turbines replacing traditional smoke belching power plants and hydroelectric dams proving a more palatable and significantly less potentially catastrophic alternative to nuclear facilities. However it is solar panels that are having perhaps the greatest impact among green energy sources, particularly in Australia which had the highest adoption of solar panels in the world in 2012 at nearly 400,000 new systems installed. This trend has been continuing in recent years with a 2014 release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics listing 19% of all Australian households having an active solar energy system and it’s not hard to see why between the environmental benefits, lower energy cost and tax incentives offered by the government, as well as the ability to sell energy back to the grid for a profit.
Intrinsic to any technological advancement is the concept that no gain can be made without some loss, and it is integral, particularly with technologies that have a considerable reputation, to understand the negative impacts that can result from these advances. While solar panels are vastly superior to using fossil fuels as an energy source solar facilities tend to use vast swathes of land which, unlike wind turbines, cannot simultaneously be used for agriculture. Further the manufacturing process, particularly the production of silicon, can have a significant impact on the environment. When Chinese factories rose to meet the demand for materials there were no regulations to prevent them simply dumping the waste materials.
Comedienne Carrie Snow once said that technology “…Brings you great gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other” and this is surely true of photovoltaic solar panels as it is of any technology. Perhaps the greatest environmental impact of solar panels is in their end of life disposal, which often amounts to their dumping in developing countries. The breakdown of these products results in cadmium and lead leeching into the soil and poisoning soil, ground water resevoirs and the air. Cadmium is of note as it has been shown to contribute to arterial disease as well as causing severe damage to the kidneys. Perhaps the most severe effect of cadmium exposure is the development of Itai-itai (translated from Japanese it literally means “It hurts, it hurts”) disease, which presented itself in post-menopausal Japanese women who had been exposed to high levels of Cadmium throughout their life via ingestion due to pollution of the surrounding area. Common symptoms of the disease are extreme osteoporosis and softening of the bone for which Itai-itai gets its name as well as kidney failure and low blood pressure which lead to significant morbidity and mortality in the Toyama prefecture of Japan.
There can be little doubt that solar panels and their adoption in both residential and large scale environments is a positive trend with tangible environmental benefits, but we also remember that technology can be a double-edged sword. As a new and growing technology there is little regulation to the disposal of photovoltaic solar panels, with many passing the US Resource and Recovery Act’s Toxicity Characteristic Leach Procedure test, meaning they are not classified as hazardous waste at the time of their disposal. The movement to adopt solar energy is a wonderful trend that can only benefit our environment in the long run, however we must temper our desire to help the environment with patience and reason as we adapt to the nuances of a new technology.