Energy and Renewables Part #2: Solar
At this point most everybody realizes that we need to move our energy supply to renewable sources and that fact does not even rely on people even believing in Climate Change. Simply put at some point there is no more oil or gas or even wood. So, in part #2 we are going to dive into solar, the benefits, lies, truths and pitfalls of this promising and ever abundant energy source.
First, we are looking at the construction of solar panels and how solar digs a very deep carbon footprint hole before becoming a positive force for CO2 reduction. To start with there are three major components of solar cells, the aluminum frame, glass panel and the silicon solar array. The first stage is the mining and processing of the materials needed to create these components and all happen to be very energy intensive emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases.
For every ton of aluminum mined and processed it creates 11.7 tons of carbon emitted. When we think about solar power commercials, they many times show a beach implying that the silicon solar array is made from humble sand, but the reality is that sand has too many impurities so, yet another energy intensive material needs to be mined, quartz. The last major set of ingredients that make the solar array in the panel are the most insidious, rare-earth elements. This group of metals including praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. While we use these materials in everyday products from cell phones to TV’s the fact is they are one of the most dangerous products to mine on earth and can easily contaminate water supplies. One of the byproducts from mining these materials is the coextraction of thorium and uranium which are highly radioactive metals which cause numerous problems for the environment and human health. On a secondary note, virtually all the mining for these materials happens in three countries with China controlling 60% of mining and 90% of processing globally: not exactly known for their environmental stewardship.
They last little secret of solar production is the processing of the actual materials into the frames and panels. While aluminum processing into frames has a high carbon output, it is rivaled by the processing of quartz into the solar panel itself. Why is quartz processing footprint so high? To melt aluminum, it requires temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit which takes a tremendous amount of energy to achieve, however when we look at quartz it requires temperatures between 3,000- and 3,200-degrees Fahrenheit. To reach those temperatures, we use a quite common fossil fuel. Coal! In fact, it requires so much coal to process a solar panel that is it is, by volume, is the largest raw material in production. For every KW hour of solar produced we put about 50 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Now for the good news. Despite all the facts above the carbon cost per KW hour is still 80% lower than coal and about 40% less than natural gas. That means depending on what the predominate electric grid source is it takes 3 to 6 years for the average solar panel to become carbon neutral or paying off the debt of manufacturing. Since solar panels can last as much as 25 years there is a couple of decades of positive carbon returns through zero emissions. While solar is still a small percentage of our grid at only 3% it is rapidly growing at a rate of about 39% per year.
Yet there are still more hurdles. For one, if our stated goal of moving 40% of our grid to solar we need massive infrastructure upgrades. If you read our article on electric cars you will have a grasp on the fact that we need a 27% increase in electricity to make that switch alone. That along with moving to an energy source that has a finite daily output and there will be a need for massive battery stations to store power during the day and consumed at night. Otherwise, we will be continuously reliant on fossil fuels or must expand our nuclear power production to cope with peak evening needs. In addition, Texas would need to be convinced to join the national grid system since there would need to be greater power sharing between utilities as the sun would generate power unevenly during the day across the states.
Another hurdle goes back to all those raw materials to make the solar panels as well as the battery systems to store that energy. The mining and processing of earth elements for panels, lithium and cobalt for batteries is dominated by three countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo 70% of Cobalt mining, China 60% all rare earth element mining, 70% of cobalt and lithium refining and 90% of rare earth refining. Only other major play across these materials is Australia but they have a small overall percentage of each. In all these three countries control 75% of these vital materials and there is an even bigger problem that geopolitical issues. If we are going to meet our goals of 2030 emissions reductions and beyond there is simply not enough mining and production of these materials to build the solar, wind and electric cars needed to meet those goals. Worse yet it takes as much as 16 years from the location of veins of these minerals to the first extraction. This is a supply chain problem that cannot be solved overnight, and we are already seeing the impact in current manufacturing. In late 2021 several computer chip companies had to suspend production for various periods of time due to shortage of rare earth elements. This caused a ripple in the supply chain that impacted everything from computers to cars to phones and is still currently being felt. As we ramp up our use of renewable energy and move to electric vehicles this scarcity issue could prove a major obstacle on keeping on track with our goals. To meet our stated goals of these cleaner technologies we will not only need 1,000 times more production from mining operations to meet future demand.
The shortages are projected to be so bad that companies and governments are looking at everything from recycling programs for electronics to recover these materials, to mining the ocean floor to landing on and mining asteroids. The lack of these materials could make our transition to a cleaner world much slower than we would like. So, when we look at what our politicians are saying around timelines of transition that they are assuming we have the supply to get there. Today we do not so that must be the first area we address and there are no fast, easy solutions.
Lastly, when we look at the efficiency of most of the current solar deployed it ranges between 13% and 20% but we have current technologies to reach nearly 30%+ today and expect to reach 50% in the next few years. The problem is that we are not deploying these more efficient panels in our grid system due to higher costs but what is the cost of not deploying these? If we had that level of performance the emissions return from manufacturing would be in 1-2 years and would produce at higher levels for the next 20. We must come out with programs to deploy more efficient panels and we have the technology to do so today.
While solar offers great promise to provide abundant clean energy there are a lot more hurdles for us to get there than most know. It will take both private and government sectors, international cooperation, and trillions in investments to make our clean future a reality.