Tag Archives: solar energy

The Dirty Side of Solar Energy

Solar energy is currently perceived as one of a host of renewable technologies that serve as a beacon of hope in the upcoming switch from carbon-based energy production.  While it may not currently have the presence in the U.S. that wind power has attained, the cost of producing a solar panel has dropped significantly even since the early 2000s [1].


Similar to Moore’s Law, the Swanson effect predicts the decrease in solar energy cost over time [1].

However, as this push for the commercialization of solar energy becomes both more urgent and more imminent, it is essential that the negative impact of this technology be evaluated and managed over the panel’s lifespan.   


Life cycle of a solar panel [2].

This life cycle continues all the way to the eventual disposal or recycling of the product [2].  Throughout it, both the manufacturer and the end user must take responsibility for the pollution and waste that they generate. 

Manufacturing of solar panels, like the production of most electronic products, requires the use of a variety of harmful chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid and kerf dust, a byproduct of silicon wafer production [3].  On top of these, fossil fuels are consumed in the acquisition of raw materials and the production of the cells [4].  California reports that from 2007 to 2011 more than 46.5 million pounds of hazardous waste was created by solar panel manufacturers within the state alone [5].  With manufacturing increasing in China and less governmental regulation, these materials are being improperly dumped into the environment [6]. 

As the price of electricity rises, residents in sunny locales have begun to look to solar power to provide electricity.  However, at the end of the panel’s lifespan, it is important that individuals have the ability to properly dispose of them.  While this may not play as significant a role as the manufacturing of the panels, if these panels are simply sent to a landfill, serious potential health risks arise from the ability of the lead soldier in the panels to contaminate the local soil and groundwater [3].  Other materials, such as glass and aluminum, could also be recycled reducing the need for new raw material sources [3].  At the moment, manufacturers have complete autonomy over solar panel recycling [7], however, the creation of industry-wide regulation is necessary to manage the waste at all stages in the solar panel life cycle.

Solar energy may currently be a renewable energy source, but in order to become a sustainable one a combination of both governmental regulation and public education needs to take place.  Demanding accountability for pollution and waste created throughout the existence of a solar panel is the best way to secure a future that could possibly be entirely solar powered [4].  

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2012/12/daily-chart-19

[2] http://livingworkinggreen.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/life-cycle-impact-of-solar-goes-beyond-hot-water/

 [3] http://www.oregon.gov/odot/hwy/oipp/docs/life-cyclehealthandsafetyconcerns.pdf

 [4] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=solar-cells-prove-cleaner-way-to-produce-power

 [5] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-10/business/37026307_1_solar-panels-hazardous-waste-panel-makers

[6] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2008-03-09/business/36778308_1_polysilicon-plants-solar-energy-chinese-companies

 [7] http://generalengineering.sjsu.edu/docs/pdf/mse_prj_rpts/fall2011/METHODS%20AND%20CONCERNS%20FOR%20DISPOSAL%20OF%20PHOTOVOLTAICS.pdf


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Smart Grid and Infrastructure Security Implications

Image via Washington Post

It’s time for real talk. Existing power generation in Texas is having a tough time meeting the state’s rising power demand. The February 2, 2011 cold snap took the state by surprise and temporarily disabled the Oak Grove coal-fired power plant. The 1.6 GW shortage cascaded across the state and disabled back-up natural gas turbines, forcing the Electric Reliability Counsel of Texas (ERCOT) to issue rolling blackouts across the state. It’s not to say that Texas is unprepared for these kind’s of surprise weather conditions, but current demand management techniques are falling short. ERCOT would like the state’s peaking power reserve margin to sit at 13.75% of the state’s total generation capacity, but this number is pretty idealistic when considering how quickly Texas is growing.

So what’s the solution? Depending on who you ask, integrating a smarter infrastructure with distributed renewable energy sources is the way to go. This means installing new smart grid technologies with renewable power sources like wind and solar and taking dependence off centralized peaking power stations. The US Department of Energy is enthusiastically embracing this modus and has already allocated $4.5 billion in grants to smart grid technologies, along with setting clean energy generation targets to 80% of national generation by 2035. This is good news for Texans, where 10.9 GW of existing wind infrastructure is ready to help offset demand loads, not to mention all that untapped solar potential. So how exactly does a smart grid help?

It’s all about information feedback. By giving the power generators insight into how electricity is being consumed and where the faults lie, we collectively gain more control over how we use electricity. Smart grid  is often touted as a self-healing technology, in that it can respond to system outages much quicker than the existing electro-mechanical infrastructure. In addition, smart grid is expected to combat the rising cost of energy. By 2050, utilities are expected to increase by up to 400% of current prices. With smart grid in place, we can expect these to increase by about 50%. Not bad. However, an underdeveloped smart grid network could have catastrophic consequences for national security.

In 2010, the US media revealed that uranium enrichment plants in Iran had been catastrophically damaged by a very complex computer program known as Stuxnet. The malicious code was specifically engineered to damage industrial control systems and SCADA networks. These networks can be found in the oil and gas industry, water management,  power generation, etc. In the case of the Iranian enrichment facilities, the code was able to gain control of the uranium centrifuges and effectively destroy them before operators realized something was awry. The truly alarming thing about Stuxnet, though, is that it was operational and in the open for a full year before anyone realized it. The code is designed to install and exploit system back doors, known as rootkits, and can be installed on any media plugged into infected hardware. That means a flash drive plugged into a corrupted system becomes an infectious vector for other industrial infrastructure. Like a smart grid network. Stuxnet is kind of like the bull in the china shop. It’s very capable of causing a lot of damage, but it isn’t too particular about what it breaks. That means any existing industrial control system can be implicated.

There isn’t solid proof as to who designed Stuxnet. The United States has been implicated, as well as Russia and Israel. However, it is an extraordinarily complex piece of work and is almost assuredly the product of a technologically developed government. This would make Stuxnet the first form of cyber-warfare that is capable of targeting entire infrastructures. Scary stuff, especially if your entire electric infrastructure is tied to an integrated smart grid system.

It’s often said that no network is impenetrable, but good people are doing a lot of pioneering work to make sure that the bad guys can’t get in. Smart grid is a very promising avenue to bringing electricity generation into the future, but we need to be confident that we’re not unnecessarily introducing vulnerabilities into existing infrastructure.


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The alliance of the wind and solar energy to light up your city…

As a French exchange student, I decided to speak about energy policies of urban and sub-urban lighting. In the beginning of 2000s, the European Commission made the development of the renewable energies a political priority, as it is described in the White Book ” Energy for the future: the sources of renewable energy ” and the Green Book «Towards an European strategy of energy supply security “.

The Commission decided on an objective to double the part of the renewable energies in the global consumption of energy to pass from 6 % in 1997 to 12 % in 2010. This objective fits into a strategy of supply security and sustainable development. A particularly significant effort must be realized in the electric domain. Within the European Union, the part of electricity produced from sources of energy renewable should reach 22,1 % in 2010 against 14,2 % in 1999. This objective defined for Europe with its 15 countries was however revised appreciably in the decline for Europe with its 25 countries which should reach 21 %.

The “Grenelle de l’environnement” was a set of political meetings organized in France in October, 2007 to make long-term decisions in environment and in sustainable development. Since these meetings, every business sector of the cities adopted a policy turned, among other things, to the improvement of the urban planning or the eco-town planning. And it is exactly in this context that a French company” Expansion&Développement ” launched the marketing of a totally innovative system.

The lamppost Windelux works only by means of the wind and of the solar energy. It allies the reliability, the output and the energy-saving by associating two main energetic sources. Some people say that this object is only a question of marketing, while others think that the researchers constantly invent new objects which seem to be ecological without for all that the being, nevertheless this public streetlight is totally innovative and ecological .Let me explain why …

Windelux is completely autonomous: it requires no outside energy contribution. The wind is the main source of supply. However besides the wind turbine, of a height and about a diameter one and a half meter, the candelabrum contains a photovoltaic panel, a generator, an electronic system of recyclable batteries and more than 80 Led. A regular wind from 4 to 8 meters/seconds, every three, four days is sufficient to make the wind turbine equipped with a double system to be able to start in low wind: savonus, two half-cylinders inverted face to face and Darius, three outside pales. Finally Windelux is endowed with a security system which is going to slow down the wind turbine at first and may stop it if the wind is too violent, what will avoid any inconvenience seen as in the video in last one course …

The current produced by the wind energy and solar energy is stored in batteries and feeds 84 Leds. The set allows to light 25 meters in longitudinal and six meters in width with a 48 watt consumption. Today the dozen small batteries allow for more than a week of functioning without any wind. So this object proves once again the renewable energies must be often organized to be able to replace effectively a not renewable pre-existent system.

In conclusion, this lamppost is naturally more expensive than a normal lamppost. Having said that, it seems perfect to light isolated places or the suburbs where the electric wiring does not arrive or still villages in the appearing countries.

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