There is some confusion among concerned people regarding the difference between renewable and clean energy. Our best ideas all look to our primary source of energy in the world, the sun. The sun is, indeed a clean energy source when we are located millions and millions of miles away and protected by earth’s magnetic field. Our tinkering in nuclear power has shown us how poisonous that energy source is up close, however.
We should be careful not to move too quickly to renewable energy if it means sacrificing our progress toward clean energy in the process.
The new answer for renewable energy is solar cells. Devices that capture nuclear energy, produced at a safe distance in the sun, and convert it to electricity. It’s a natural thought. Sunlight already powers everything else on our planet, from the weather to plants, and, by extension, our own bodies as well.
We use light for things as simple as sight, to anything as complex as exploring the distant universe. Why not use it to power our technology? Well, we should do exactly that, but we are not there with our technology, and pushing for mass production of our current solar technology would be devastating for our environment.
Our current solar energy is renewable, but not clean.
The process of producing energy that a solar cell uses to produce electricity is clean, but that is the only part of it that is. The manufacture of solar power cells, and disposing of them after they fail, requires many toxic chemicals. Electronics waste is a serious environmental problem already, and this will aggravate the issue.
While it is true that solar energy produces less greenhouse gasses, it is extremely destructive in other ways. The production process uses cadmium, arsenic, sulfuric acid, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, and others including trichloroethane, which is one of the ozone depleting chemicals restricted under the Montreal Protocol to curb damage to the ozone layer. These chemicals end up in ground water and in farm land all over the world, especially in the poorest regions, where people end up growing poisonous food and selling it to international markets.
Electronic waste is destroying farmland, killing many plants and making the rest poisonous. Before we eagerly and blindly rush forward on the road to technological advancement, lets understand the consequences and implications and maybe take the extra time to do it right.
There are a few groups, Heliocorp in Germany, and University of Washington in the USA, who are working on organic solar cells, which are truly clean. There is also BioSolar in California, working on creating non-toxic components and production methods to clean up current methods.
So let’s wait for technology to catch up with our ideals, so that we don’t end up doing the opposite of what we want.
Daniel Harris writes on behalf of BYK Additives & Instruments. He enjoys reading about photophysics and writing about the unusual applications of light and radiation.