A step in the right direction?

As a member of the Green Party of Canada, I receive occasional updates on my FB page. This morning, it was a shared link to an article about the conversion of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in Ontario to a solar farm. My initial reaction was “looks like a step in the right direction”. And it may well be one. After all, burning coal is the dirtiest way to generate electricity. But I’m left with two big questions. First, how much electricity will this solar farm generate (as in the percentage of the original capacity of the coal-fired plant)? Here, I’m thinking about land-use. Second, considering that cradle-to-grave analysis of solar energy production reveals some negative environmental impacts, especially related to the production of panels (which uses rare-earth metals and some pretty nasty chemicals) and their eventual disposal, what are the downsides of going this route? I don’t mean to denigrate clean technologies – I am supportive of developing solar, wind and geothermal power generation – but I can’t help thinking that there should be at least as much, if not more, emphasis placed on reduction of demand as there is on implementation of alternative sources of energy. Why doesn’t the Green Party and, for that matter, the Government of Canada (well, why not all governments?) really starting pushing urban populations to reduce consumption?

One thought on “A step in the right direction?

  • March 16, 2016 at 3:08 am
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    I applaud Ontario’s move in switching to a cleaner form of technology as I believe it is a step towards the right direction.

    There are 2 types of solar energy. One is Photovoltaic Energy, which uses solar panels that directly convert sunlight in electricity. The second is Solar Thermal Energy, which uses mirrors to direct reflected sunlight onto a central tower that heats up molten salt and electricity is stored as heat energy. The use of photovoltaic energy does not require much land as solar panels can be affixed onto existing infrastructure such as the rooftops of buildings. On the other hand, solar thermal energy requires more land as a substantial number of mirrors need to be used to heat up the molten salt in the central tower.

    A massive solar farm in the Nevada Desert covers more than 1, 670 acres. This new Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project (using solar thermal energy) has more than 10,000 mirrors, each the size of a small house. However, as this solar farm is located in a desert, I do think that it is a reasonable location to have a huge solar farm. This is because a desert is not an easy environment for humans to inhabit. Furthermore, no deforestation or land-clearing has to occur as land in a desert is open-spaced and infrastructure can be built without tearing down anything. If one is worried about the large amount of land required for a solar farm, why not shift it to the waters? There are even floating solar farms, which solve the problem of/worries about land. These floating solar farms could be located in a reservoir or out at sea.

    However, the construction of a solar farm in a desert does have an impact on wildlife. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, 3200 acres big, located in the Mojave Desert has allegedly killed and injured dozens of birds flying over the solar farm, as well as other wildlife in the desert. This is due to the intense amount of sunlight (and hence, heat) being reflected from mirrors in the solar farm. I would think that the larger the solar farm, the more wildlife would be affected from the massive amount of heat being reflected. In addition, floating solar farms are not very feasible as although they do not take up land space, they may pose a problem to marine and aquatic life.

    Furthermore, solar energy is not a very efficient form of energy. It has an efficiency of only 8% (He et al., 2012). However, this number can be enhanced (He et al., 2012). Furthermore, when compared to past efficiency numbers, technological advances have allowed the efficiency of solar panels to increase. It has also allowed for the development of a solar tracking panel that tracks the movement of the sun, such that the sun’s rays hit the solar panels at a right angle, optimising light absorption.
    Moreover, solar panels themselves have undesirable effects due to the toxic chemicals/compounds used in the panels that may pose environmental risks. According to Tsoutsos et al. (2005), the environmental impacts of solar thermal heating systems include coolant liquids and heat transfer fluids that may leak and cause a fire hazard. Furthermore, solar panels have cadmium telluride which is toxic for the lungs (Fthenakis et al., 1999) and this serves as a work hazard for manufacturers of solar panels.

    A reduction in energy consumption would help to lessen environmental impacts from solar energy (and power produced from coal) as demand is reduced and less electricity needs to be produced. Educating the public is important in igniting a change in people’s habits. Habitual changes are difficult but not impossible. It takes time for education to come into effect. Apart from educating the public, businesses and industries can do their part by developing more energy-efficient products. It is not possible to reduce our energy consumption to zero as our economy would probably collapse if that happens. As such, more energy-efficient methods of consumption needs to be developed, as well as a reduction in energy wastage. Renewable technology also needs to be implemented and further developed to go hand-in-hand with education.

    Overall, I think it is good that the coal-fired plant is being replaced by a solar farm. While its efficiency and environmental impacts are not desirable, it is more desirable than having a coal-fired plant as solar energy is renewable. Furthermore, with further technological advances, the efficiency of solar technology and its environmental impacts can be increased and reduced, respectively. Proper handling and construction techniques will help to ensure solar energy is produced with minimal environmental impact.

    There will always be trade-offs in technology. There can never only be good and no bad in any decision made. When you take cradle-to-grave production into consideration, almost everything has its detrimental environmental impact. Hence, decisions made with regard to clean technology is usually about choosing the lesser of the two evils, and deciding which type of clean technology better suits your geographical location and needs of the population.

    It is adamant to promote the reduction of energy consumption. However, since effects of educating the public is a long-term solution that takes a while to come into effect, shorter-term solutions such as switching from coal to clean technology needs to be implemented hand-in-hand. I believe that with time and greater awareness, the environmental message will become more widespread and ingrained in people’s habits and this will ignite a change in their lifestyle consumption that has a lower ecological footprint.

    He, Z., Zhong, C., Su, S., Xu, M., Wu, H. & Cao, Y. (2012). Enhanced power-conversion efficiency in polymer solar cells using an inverted device structure. Nature Photonics, 6, 591-595.

    Fthenakis, V.M., Morris, S.C., Moskowitz, P.D. & Morgan, D.L. (1999). Toxicity of cadmium telluride, copper indium diselenide, and copper gallium diselenide. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 7, 489-497.

    Tsoutsos, T., Frantzeskaki, N. & Gekas, V. (2005). Environmental impacts from the solar energy technologies. Energy Policy, 33, 289-296.

    Nevada Desert solar farm: http://www.fastcoexist.com/3057288/this-huge-new-solar-farm-near-las-vegas-provides-power-even-at-night

    Mojave Desert solar farm: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2560494/Worlds-largest-solar-farm-SCORCHING-BIRDS-fly-it.html

    Floating solar farm in London: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/29/worlds-biggest-floating-solar-farm-power-up-outside-london

    (sorry, i can’t link words to websites in a comment)

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