4 July 2012 – Solar cells do not offset greenhouse gases or curb fossil fuel use in the United States according to a new environmental book, Green Illusions, written by University of California – Berkeley visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner.
Green Illusions explains how the solar industry has grown to become one of the leading emitters of hexafluoroethane (C2F6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). These three potent greenhouse gases, used by solar cell fabricators, make carbon dioxide (CO2) seem harmless.
Hexafluoroethane has a global warming potential that is 12,000 times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is 100 per cent manufactured by humans, and survives 10,000 years once released into the atmosphere. Nitrogen trifluoride is 17,000 times more virulent than CO2, and SF6, the most treacherous greenhouse gas, is over 23,000 times more threatening.
The solar photovoltaic industry is one of the fastest-growing emitters of these gases, which are now measurably accumulating within the earth’s atmosphere according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A NOAA study shows that atmospheric concentrations of SF6 have been rising exponentially. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters documents that atmospheric NF3 levels have been rising 11% a year.
"If photovoltaic production grows, so will the associated side effects," Zehner claims. "Even worse, there’s no evidence that solar cells offset fossil fuel use in the American context." Zehner explains that alternative energy subsidies keep retail electricity costs incrementally lower, which then spurs demand. "It’s a boomerang effect. The harder we throw alternative energy into the electrical grid, the harder demand comes back to hit us on the head. Historically, we’ve filled that demand by building more fossil fuel plants, not fewer."
Instead, Zehner advocates shifting to energy taxes and other conservation measures. He claims that even some of the most expensive options for dealing with CO2 would become cost competitive long before today’s solar cell technologies.
"If limiting CO2 is our goal, we might be better off directing our time and resources to those options first; solar cells seem a wasteful and pricey strategy," Zehner says. "It is hard to conceive of a justification for extracting taxes from the working class to fund installations of Stone Age photovoltaic technologies high in the gold-rimmed suburbs of Arizona and California."