By Ashwath Komath
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Energy is the mainstay of economic development. It forms a part of essential infrastructure, and without a steady energy supply, there will be no progress. Of course, the discourse now is not about generating electricity itself, but also to ensure that the sources we derive energy from are not polluting, are reliable, and safeguard the environment.
The whole idea of renewables as a magic bullet to solve environmental problems has been developing since decades. As a disclaimer, I would simply like to state that I am not against renewable energy. The main objective of this article is to highlight that renewable energy has its drawbacks; some of which are fairly substantial, but are often not discussed because the emphasis is on promotion of renewables.
Renewables can be defined as sources of energy that can be replenished, for example, solar, wind, geo-thermal and other sources. Apart from being renewable, these sources are also ‘clean’ because they don’t emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while energy is being produced, as opposed to fossil fuels, that can not be replenished and also give out carbon. Given that energy-production is one of the largest polluters on the planet, the strategy of environment protection has been renewables-centric, hoping that renewable energy will solve not only the energy deficits of the world, but also make it a cleaner place.
While I will not dispute that renewable energy sources are clean as they are being used, what I will disagree with is the misconception that such sources are completely clean, especially when it comes to manufacturing them.
Solar cells use a variety of elements and materials which are very toxic and harmful to people. There are sufficient amounts of lead, cadmium and other materials present within it. These are the same components present in our electronics, which pose significant problems when it comes to e-waste disposal. Cities like Guiyu in China prove to be a glaring example of how harmful these toxins are to human health.
With manufacturing picking up pace, this problem is only going to grow.
The demand for more solar panels and wind turbines has considerably risen with government policies encouraging and subsidizing their purchase, and mandating that they be used in several sectors. Germany may be a very good example of how to effectively promoted solar energy for domestic, as well as industrial use. The smart grid system, where the state purchases any surplus energy generated in the solar panels, has ensured that there will always be individuals who are invested in solar energy.
The demand for solar energy has now outstripped supply, therefore there are more manufacturers coming up, trying to build new solar energy products. Increased manufacturing, coupled with the fact that it isn’t easy to recycle the components after panels are worn out, makes the problem much more difficult.
Also keep in mind that solar energy’s output in proportion to energy invested is quite low as opposed to other energy sources, as it requires a large surface area for heat absorption, which inevitably translates to the manufacturing of more panels, leading to a much larger e-waste problem in the future.
The same goes with wind energy, because new materials are used in the manufacturing of turbines. If these turbines can be recycled completely, is another question altogether. This creates some serious long-term problems in terms of disposal. The fact remains that with the new impetus on the research and development of renewables, there are going to be newer models with more composite materials and a bigger recycling problem, as plants will choose to upgrade, and the miniaturization and subsidization of the technology will bring about new demand for individuals.
Solving one environmental problem has effectively created another. Perhaps the only way out is if we also concentrate on the disposal of such technologies, because that is going to be the next environmental challenge after we perfect the ability to generate clean energy on a viable scale.
Renewables may not be the big magic bullet that saves humanity after all.
The idea of renewable sources must also be augmented by nuclear power plants, which shows a lot of promise in energy generation. Of course, nuclear waste is a huge problem, but then again, if one looks at the overall costs and the energy return on energy invested, nuclear power seems to be a very good bet on offsetting both the problems of clean energy, as well as commercial viability. It is time we stopped concentrating only on renewables such as solar and wind, which have some glaring problems in themselves. However, these can be fixed with research and development regarding the disposal of critical items.
Ashwath is a graduate in Political Science from Fergusson College, Pune. He is an aspiring diplomat and hopes to join the Indian Foreign Service someday. He enjoys writing about foreign policy, international security and international affairs. When he is not writing or reading, he enjoys playing pool with his friends, watching foreign cinema and listening to instrumental music.