Hidden Costs of Solar Power

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Wondering which solar technology has the smallest environmental footprint? In recent years new photovoltaic technologies have nearly doubled the efficiency of solar cells. Yet production methods, whether from silicon, metal, or other material, raise doubts about their environmental friendliness. For example, purifying and producing silicon uses a lot of water and energy, whereas refining zinc and copper ores to get cadmium, telluride, and other elements creates metal emissions and an energy sink.

Now Environmental Science & Technology calculates the impact. They’ve released a life-cycle assessment of some of the leading photovoltaic technologies. Some appear better than others. You can read the pdf here.

The study notes that, even with the costs, the benefits of replacing gas- and coal-fired grids with photovoltaics cut greenhouse & particulate emissions 89–98%. Rooftop panels reduce emissions even more due to the resulting decrease in transmission lines and other infrastructure.

The winner? Thin-film cadmium–telluride (CdTe) photovoltaics—with more efficient energy conversion and lowest costs.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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