A solar installation at Nellis Air Force Base: Photovoltaics are poised for big expansion. (Flickr/GravityX9)
"Everybody loves solar, the shiny superstar of renewable energy," reports the Los Angeles Times. "But scratch the surface of the manufacturing process and the green sheen disappears. Vast amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce and transport panels. Solar cells contain toxic materials. Some components can't be easily recycled."
Egads, solar not eco-friendly? Consider the unavoidable fact that solar panels are made from petroleum, and thus dependent to some degree on low oil prices. When the price goes up, as it inevitably will, so will the cost of making photovoltaics. Ironic, isn't it? Dr. David Lee, CEO of BioSolar, calls it a "fundamental contradiction."
BioSolar starts with recycled cotton and castor beans, and produces a protective backing for solar cells. Its product is intended as a competitor to Tedlar, a petroleum-derived film made by DuPont that is the industry standard for silicon-based solar cells. And it's 25% cheaper, too. Green Energy News says the new technology "may possibly revolutionize the solar power industry as we know it today."
The magazine adds that bio-plastics have been tried for solar before, but delicate molecular structures and the tendency to melt when exposed to high temperatures made them "a wavering option for solar-cell fabrication."
According to Dr. Lee, "Oil prices go up and down a lot, and putting a huge new demand on the petroleum industry as solar production increases is just not a good idea." He added that cotton and castor beans are just two of the bio-based ingredients of the company's new product, but the others are proprietary. The bio-film will be on the market in the latter part of 2009; other bio solar products are in the research and development stage, Dr. Lee said.
All solar cells require protective backing, and every square foot of panel requires a square foot of backing. The company is soon to release other bio-based solar parts, including a replacement for the glass top layer of most panels.
A report issued in January by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says the industry should be doing more to ensure than clean energy doesn't leave a pollution trail. According to the report, a rapid expansion of solar, which uses a lot of materials and processes derived from the computer industry, "has the potential to create a huge new wave of electronic waste" at the end of the panels' 20- to 25-year life. The content includes nanomaterials, whose performance in the environment is largely untested.
"With the solar PV sector still emerging," the coalition says, "we have a limited window of opportunity to ensure that this extremely important industry is truly 'clean and green,' from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal."
Who could argue with that? Solar has to be green all the way through.
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