Talk to China About Solar Panels, Elon Musk (Hint: They're Kinda Bad for the Environment)

CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO and CTO of SpaceX and general genius Elon Musk also heads up another group called Solar City, which, as the name implies, sells solar panels in the quest for a cultural conversion to renewable energy.


And, at risk of demeaning that quest (because it’s never a bad idea to look into environmentally sound emerging energy options and I don’t want to imply that it is), it’s a bit strange that Musk is on a full-force public relations push to sell solar panels when that technology is currently facing some environmental challenges of its own in China.

Musk went on record at the National Governors Association as touting the benefits of solar panels as “clean” energy, requiring little space. He also says the people who would be out of work should a dramatic shift in the energy sector occur should place their blame squarely on the energy companies that currently employ them because they’ve not gotten aboard the clean energy train already.

Almost all the energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun (the exception is geothermal energy). Wind is caused in large part by the sun’s uneven heating of the atmosphere; hydroelectric energy depends on the water cycle, which is driven by solar-powered evaporation; and even fossil fuels store energy that was originally captured via photosynthesis. So why not cut out the middleman and get our electricity from solar panels?

Just how many of those solar panels would be needed to supply America’s energy needs? “If you wanted to power the entire United States with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah; you only need about 100 miles by 100 miles,” Musk said. “The batteries you need to store the energy, so you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square mile.”


It all sounds very good and happy and obvious, doesn’t it? But there’s a hitch.

China, currently holding the world record for solar panels, is having trouble disposing of the short-lived panels because they contain “metals such as lead and copper” while also carrying an aluminium frame with cells “made up of pure, crystallised silicon wrapped under a thick layer of plastic membrane for protection.”

Tian Min, general manager of Nanjing Fangrun Materials, a recycling company in Jiangsu province that collects retired solar panels, said the solar power industry was a ticking time bomb.

“It will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment, if the estimate is correct,” he said.

“This is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle,” Tian added.

It’s all very good to promote change in the energy industry, especially toward clean, responsible and renewable energy solutions. But perhaps, Mr. Musk, you could, in the course of your PR push to sell Tesla’s new solar roofs, explain some of the downsides so that consumers are prepared. That’s what a responsible businessman should do.


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