The other side of solar: Sometimes the environment takes a pounding in ways you wouldn’t think…

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Critiquing solar power is not for the faint of heart; it’s like kicking a puppy. Who could be against “free” energy from the sun?

The quotation marks above aren’t just to show off, no one should think that solar power is free. Yes the energy from the sun is free of charge, which probably irks Wall Street to no end, but there are significant costs to developing solar technology that also ironically make mincemeat of the environment.

The oil sands are vilified for the tailings ponds they leave behind, which are vast pools of residue left behind as the gooey oil is stripped from sand. (The irony that oil sands mining fundamentally just cleans oil from the ground is not widely discussed.) They certainly aren’t pretty and ducks get really pissed off when they fly into them, and then they die. No one disputes we’d be better off without them.

Oddly enough, the manufacture of solar panels creates eerily similar pools of sludge that are just as toxic. The processing of rare earth materials, necessary for the proper functioning of solar panels, creates toxic byproducts in large quantities. What makes the problem much less significant than oil sands residue is that these chemical cesspools are in China. Everyone knows that place is, environmentally speaking, like a plugged toilet at the end of an AC/DC concert, so what’s the big deal about another square kilometer of toxic waste.

There are also smaller scale microclimate issues where solar installations inevitably annoy various species of one sort or another. In California and other sunny climates, new solar farms regularly meet resistance from some random group because some little critter has their routine disrupted. And the thing with little critters, if we don’t eat them or exterminate them we go to great lengths to make sure they can do whatever they want…

No matter how noble the cause of moving to greener energy, everyone should keep in mind that there is no environmental free lunch. Any attempt to keep all 7 billion of us alive with adequate food, shelter and transportation is going to harm some part of the environment. Fossil fuels have an impact in one way, which we all get to see because of our open media society. Mining for rare-earth metals in places where inspectors are bought like old IKEA furniture on Kijiji has an impact as well, we just don’t see it as much. And in this fast paced world of information overload, if we don’t see it it doesn’t matter all that much. Unless it’s a wardrobe malfunction, that gets our attention.

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