“The giant oil companies, when left to their own devices, will treat even the most magnificent of nature’s wonders like a sewer,” writes Bob Herbert in his New York Times editorial “Disaster in the Amazon.”He concludes, “The riches to be made are so vastly corrupting, that governments refuse to impose the kinds of oversight and safeguards that would mitigate the damage to the environment and its human and animal inhabitants.”
It strikes me that this characterization holds an underlying truth about energy production in general, including green technologies – not even solar power is exempt. Over the past five years, the price surge for polysilicon–the building block for the sunlight capturing wafers used in solar power–led to catastrophic environmental impacts at production sites in China, the largest supplier of solar panels to North America and the world. As this situation illustrates, without life-cycle transparency ‘clean energy’ can be very dirty.
With transparency, significant gains over traditional fuels can be achieved. An insightful study, Emissions from Solar Photovoltaic Life Cycles,led by the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory found that, when well regulated, producing electricity from solar cells reduces air pollutants by up to 90 percent in comparison to using conventional fossil fuel technologies.