Is solar energy really green? We answer some common questions about panels

As the world continues to push towards net zero emissions, more large solar farms will be built in Australia.

But why are they built on productive farmland, and how credible are claims of toxic pollution?

The Clean Energy Council (CEC) predicts a massive increase in the number of solar panels in the short term.

The amount of solar energy installed in Australia has doubled in the last three to four years, and the CEC predicts that it will double again in the next few years.

Concern is global

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said solar panels contributed significantly to the world’s non-recycled waste mountain.

“But it also poses a growing threat to human health and the environment because of the dangerous elements it contains,” Mr Steiner said.

Australia is adding to this mountain by sending 40,000 old panels a year in containers to markets in developing countries.

While that trade provides cheap panels for poorer nations, the UN is concerned that many of them will end up in landfills abroad.

Map of investments in renewable projects in Australia
According to the Clean Energy Council, there are currently 102 renewable energy projects under construction around Australia or due to start soon.(Delivered: The Clean Energy Council)

Are solar panels toxic?

The vast majority of solar panels are made of thin silicon wafers using refined silicon dioxide.

It is the same chemical compound as sand that is used to make glass, so it is harmless.

The solar cells are connected by thin strips of tin and copper, which are sealed and protected under glass.

Almost all materials can be recycled, and several new plants are under development, which will be able to transform old panels into recyclable materials.

However, there are a small number of panels that were previously made using cadmium, which is highly toxic and associated with serious health problems.

Some panels are also made with nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), a gas associated with global warming.

A South Korean study from 2020 raised concerns about pollution from solar panels that are “released into the environment during their disposal or after damage, such as those from natural disasters.”

The United States also wants to address the issue with a March 2021 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory pointing to a lack of incentives for recycling companies and confusing and conflicting government regulations.

Are solar farms taking over productive agricultural land?

The NSW government has set up five renewable energy zones in regional areas, where it promotes the development of solar farms close to large populations and the existing electricity grid.

This means that productive farmland is sometimes used to build large photovoltaic plants, and farmer Bianca Schultz is just in the firing line.

She owns a property next to the proposed Walla Walla Square in Riverina in southwestern NSW, while the Culcairn project borders her second border.

Bianca Schultz stands with her partner, three daughters and son on a field of rapeseed.
Bianca Schultz is concerned about two large solar cell projects near her property.(Delivered by: Bianca Schultz)

Ms Schultz said the property was previously used for grazing livestock, making hay and harvesting.

She believes it will negatively impact the local economy to transform it into an industrial-scale photovoltaic plant with only a few employees for maintenance.

“The on-flow effect on transport companies, grain traders, rural areas; it takes a lot from our society,” she said.

To keep jobs and food

One of the companies behind the projects in Riverina and eight others in Australia is Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV).

In a report on the Walla Walla project, the FRV argued that they can maintain up to 85 percent of the current occupancy rates for livestock with the solar farm.

The project will employ 16 people on site and will generate $ 200 million during the construction phase, according to a study by Ernst and Young (EY).

The EY also released a report highlighting the potential of renewable energy to lead the world to global recovery, the post-pandemic.

Technicians unfold a large selection of solar panels
Technicians roll out “solar farm in a box” system designed by Australian company Maverick. (Delivered to: Climate Media Center)

Regulator comfortable with solar extension

Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner Andrew Dyer says Australia has plenty of low-value land next to the grid that had already been cleared to suit developments of this kind.

He understands why some farmers would be worried about losing land for production out of their region, but he gets very few complaints about solar energy projects in general, especially when they are underway.

A graph of how much solar waste there will be in the world by 2050
In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency called on governments to lay the institutional foundation for a recycling industry.(Delivered by: International Renewable Energy Agency)

He says there is no evidence to support the heat sink theory and he has not had any complaints about cadmium pollution, but he agrees that solar energy projects need an “end of life” plan and wants to see standard setbacks to protect neighbor.

My Dyer is concerned about possible contamination leaking from dumped panels and wants to see places cleaned up by the end of their life.

“Decommissioning plans should include removing the panels from the site and appropriate disposal so that they do not cause long-term environmental damage,” he said.

A sheep stands next to a long row of solar panels
A number of trials around Australia show that grazing can coexist with large-scale solar energy projects.(Delivered: UQ)

Kane Thornton of the industry group Clean Energy Council says society broadly supports the growth of renewable energy, although there are not many jobs on solar farms once they are built.

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