SOLAR ENERGY NOT THAT CLEAN

Obama is ramping up his efforts to replace coal with solar power during his second term. And, although solar power has its applications, especially in remote locations, it is uneconomical compared to coal powered electrical energy. And, it might surprise you to learn that solar energy has a larger and more destructive environmental footprint than you think.

Most people don't know it, but the production of solar panels requires a witch's brew of toxic chemicals that would make Obama go crazy if it came from a mine. In fact, it is the dark secret of solar energy that the experts keep from the public. Manufacture of photovoltaic cells requires toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, in addition to carcinogenic solvents. As a result, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.

Solar panel manufacturers in California produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011. Roughly 97 percent of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Solyndra, the now-defunct solar company that received $535 million in guaranteed federal loans, reported producing about 12.5 million pounds of hazardous waste, much of it carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water, which was sent to waste facilities from 2007 through mid-2011.

Toxic waste isn't the only problem. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has accepted hundreds of applications to build solar plants. There are over one million acres of public land in the six most solar intense states that are being considered for solar plants.

Imagine the outcry if it were announced that one million acres of federal land were under consideration for open pit coal mining?

Contrary to the promises of environmentalists, these solar plants will not have a small footprint when they are constructed. Unlike many mines, which blend with the local environment, solar plants will strip the land and then cover them with acres of solar panels and reflectors. Solar reflector arrays need to be on flat ground (3% or less of a grade). That means nearly all of the land will have to scraped; destroying plant life and wildlife habitat. Mines, on the other hand usually scrape only pit and road areas. Then, after the mine is closed all the land is reclaimed. Solar plants, on the other hand will scar the land for decades.

Solar plants also require a lot of resources, including water. That is quite different from the mining industry were mines recycle their water. Many mines even pump ground water from the mine and use it to expand local riparian areas, while recharging the water table. Solar plants, however, are major consumers of water and a clear threat to the water table.

Solar panels and reflectors require water in order to stay clean in a dry, dusty desert environment. And, concentrated solar power reflectors also require water for steam production and cooling towers. In fact, for every megawatt produced, six acre feet of water are required. Unlike mines, which recycle their water, 92% of the solar plant's water is released into the environment through evaporation, which requires a constant supply for fresh water. Nevada's Solar One power plant near Las Vegas uses 400 acre feet to produce its 64 megawatts. This type of water demand will rapidly deplete Nevada's water table.

These solar plants also produce "greenhouse gases." Obviously, there has to be an alternate energy source when it's dark or cloudy. However, keeping the solar plant on standby requires burning fossil fuels. In order to keep the water in the solar reflectors warm during the nights, solar plants have to use natural gas. Without this heating, the solar reflectors wouldn't be able to immediately go online when the sun comes up.

Despite the great publicity surrounding solar energy, there remain many problems. One of the greatest is that it will require damaging our western environment in ways that centuries of mining never did. In light of that, coal powered electricity remains a better environmental choice for the foreseeable future.