Solar Power and Negative Externalities

This article on the boom in companies using solar power is only one of many I’ve seen recently on the declining costs and increased usage of this wonderful sun-based power source.   It even has this nice graphic (see below).  One might even be tempted to conclude that businesses are doing good by doing well.

Solar CapacityBut I’m curious why one rarely hears about the pollution created by the production of solar panels and the environmental costs associated with solar panel disposal/recycling.  We certainly hear a lot about pollution (and disposal costs) caused by carbon-based or nuclear power sources.  Even I think about water pollution when I hear the word fracking since this negative externality has been repeated so often in discussions of this extraction method — and I’m the kind of person excited by what the fracking revolution means for the US and believe that the environmental costs have been overstated.

So, are the negative aspects of solar power discussed so infrequently because they pale in comparison to the alternatives?  Or is it because the solar business and their environmentalist allies want us to ignore the kind of accounting they insist upon for other power sources (even wind energy seems to get more negative publicity)?  Is it because production frequently takes place outside of the US so the costs are less obvious or less salient to Americans?

I’m honestly curious.   And I’d really love it if solar were truly so good that it could be less environmentally harmful and more efficient than other sources of energy.  But I’d like to hear more about the costs (other than the obvious aesthetic ones).  And of course, the government subsidies deserve more mention as well (but this is true of all energy sources, including wood!).

5 thoughts on “Solar Power and Negative Externalities

  1. I think the problem with evaluating the negatives of solar is that you have to specify what kind of solar you’re talking about, and it’s all lumped together for media purposes. For example, you talk about ” solar panel disposal/recycling,” so I assume you’re referring to photovoltaics, which have a variety of construction methods that are ever changing (which means their recycling costs are ever changing). You’re apparently not talking about solar-reflective power stations, which use fields of big mirrors to do the same thing as nuclear fission: heat water into steam to turn turbines. Or solar-incorporating architecture that channels sunlight throughout a building in order to reduce the need for artificial lighting. That’s “solar” too.

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