Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 | It’s emission-free energy as abundant as San Diego sunshine. Indeed, for many clean tech advocates, there’s little not to love about solar power. Solar panels are widely hailed as a potential environmental and economic savior for San Diego, a fast-evolving technology that promises both job creation and a greener future.
But even though they’re typically considered far cleaner than their fossil-fuel counterparts, solar panels themselves come with a list of potential environmental impacts — some known, others still incompletely understood. Among those risks: the release of greenhouse gases during manufacture and problems disposing of chemical byproducts in countries like China, where production is sometimes poorly regulated.
Experts strongly encourage the use of solar panels, but also stress the need to ensure proper techniques are used in both manufacture and disposal in this rapidly changing industry.
“There’s an irony, you’re trying to save the environment by buying a solar panel, and the manufacture (of solar panels) is emitting greenhouse gases in the process,” says Ray Weiss, a professor of geochemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Electricity is used to manufacture solar panels, resulting in greenhouse gases — and some other kinds of emissions stem from solar panel production as well.
Weiss’ research focuses on trace gases like nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, a greenhouse gas 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. NF3 is commonly used in the manufacture of electronics and some solar panels. The gas is confined but a fraction often escapes during the process. In October, Weiss and other scientists found NF3 levels were increasing at 11 percent each year, although the cause is unclear. Production of some other panels involves another gas called sulfur hexafluoride — the most potent greenhouse gas known to science.
How much greenhouse gas does solar panel manufacture emit? The answer depends on the type of solar panel, says Vasilis Fthenakis, head of the Photovoltaic Environmental Research Center at Brookhaven National Lab. Fthenakis and has conducted extensive research on the environmental impacts of solar and compared it with other technologies like fossil fuel to get a better idea of the big picture.