Solar power enables access to the most plentiful and unlimited energy source available. In a single hour, 430 quintillion Joules of energy (that’s 430 with eighteen zeros behind it!!) from the sun hits the earth. In one hour, the power supplied by the sun is sufficient for a whole year’s usage. If we state that Solar Energy is renewable or non-renewable, it is essential to identify the most used energy sources and compare them to solar energy based on renewability.
Solar energy is considered partly renewable energy. To pass the test of whether an energy source is renewable, it must also be sustainable. That means the technology must naturally harness, store, distribute, and replace the energy with no harmful side effects.
How is renewable energy defined? What are renewable and non-renewable fuels? An assessment can then be made on the renewability credentials of Solar Energy. The conclusion is surprising!
Is Solar Energy Renewable Or Non-Renewable?
The agreed method of determining whether a power source is renewable or non-renewable is by judging how quickly the energy source is replaced and whether it is sustainable after being consumed.
Solar Power neatly fits the definition of renewable energy simply because the sun:
- Is predicted to continue lighting the earth for 6 billion years.
- Power generated is so vast that the earth’s annual consumption needs are met in just one hour of the sun shining. That means that the sun provides multiple 9,000 units of energy for every unit needed by the earth’s population.
In anyone’s terms of reference, that is enough!! The sun is an overachiever!
Which Energy Sources Are Renewable, And Which Aren’t?
Before considering in detail whether Solar Energy is renewable or non-renewable, it’s essential to identify which of the most used energy sources are renewable or non-renewable. The energy sources have also been categorized as sustainable or not.
1. Renewable And Sustainable Energy Sources
To be considered renewable and environmentally friendly, the energy source must pass the following test:
- It must be that constantly replenished in a natural way
- It must be clean energy that does no long-term harm to the environment
- It comes from natural sources or processes
- Its use must not create any harmful environmental side effects, e.g., emitting greenhouse gases
- Equipment used in its production and distribution should be recyclable
- The production of the individual components of the equipment must not cause the toxic waste or have any harmful environmental or social impact.
Wind, Biomass, Geothermal, Hydro, and Solar are renewable energy sources. The environmental component is a little more challenging to judge.
2. Non-Renewable Sources
To be classified as non-renewable and non-sustainable, energy must pass the following test:
- They must be a natural substance.
- They must not be naturally replenished.
- They must be a finite resource.
- They create harmful side effects for the environment.
Unfortunately, Oil, Natural gas, Coal, and Nuclear energy pass these tests with flying colors.
Non-renewable Fossil fuels entail mining and shipping for considerable distances at a substantial environmental cost.
Each of the steps, from mining through to being converted into energy, are environmentally expensive and collectively very damaging to the future viability of the earth.
What Makes Up A Solar Generating System?
A solar generating system converts the sun’s energy into electricity. This is done by solar panels harnessing the sun’s energy and converting this to electrical current. If not immediately required, the energy is stored in a battery. When the power is needed, the system distributes this to the network.
A typical domestic solar installation will include the following components.
- Solar Panels to capture the suns energy as DC
- An Inverter to convert the captured energy from DC to AC
- Batteries to store excess energy as DC
- Peripheral Equipment Including circuit breakers, cabling, and fuses
Is Solar Energy Renewable And Sustainability?
Solar energy is:
- Replenished naturally
- It is clean and does not harm the environment
- It comes from a natural source, i.e., the sun
- Using it does not harm the environment
Solar energy fulfills 4 of the 6 criteria for renewable energy. However, the renewability and sustainability of the components used to harvest that energy and store it may not meet the requirements.
The renewability of solar systems is explored in the following sections:
1. The Manufacture Of Solar Panels And Inverters Are Problematic.
The potential impact of the manufacturer, installation, and subsequent production of power affect
- Land usage
- Habitat Loss
- Environmental impact when manufactured.
- Social Destruction
Commercial solar panel farms use large tracts of land. These plants are unsightly and damaging to the landscape of the countryside.
The manufacture of solar panels, inverters, and batteries is where the first issue is hit. Production of the panels entails substantial energy; large volumes of wastewater result and hazardous by-products are released into the atmosphere.
Solar panels are designed to be fully recyclable at the end of their useful life in their defense.
With inverters, the end-of-life disposal is also a hill that future generations will have to climb. Unlike the panels, inverters are not recyclable. Along with most electronic equipment, toxins from electronic waste can enter the soil and water supplies if not disposed of properly.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment (widely known as WEEE or e-waste) in Europe alone is over 10 million tonnes per year! You read that correctly. We must ensure that equipment used in solar energy production doesn’t contribute to this total …. Yet!
2. The Social And Environmental Costs Of Batteries Disqualify Solar Systems
Batteries used for energy storage represent the most significant environmental and social cost associated with this so-called renewable energy source.
The first-generation solar systems stored the energy on “gel batteries.” These lasted a maximum of five years – generally shorter; they then have to be replaced.
As gel batteries corrode, the chemicals soak into the soil and contaminate ground and surface water, damaging ecosystems.
Lithium batteries were thought to be the environmental solution. They last much longer and store energy more efficiently. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different.
These batteries incorporate cobalt and nickel in their construction. The only place where cobalt and nickel are only found in sufficient quantities is in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and neighboring territories.
Mining cobalt and nickel ensure they fail the test of renewability and sustainability. The mining process is destructive to the environment, and even more alarmingly, it results in endless human suffering. The DRC uses child labor to extract the toxic chemicals associated with cobalt and nickel.
In the mining town of Kolwezi (situated in the DRC), high levels of cobalt have been measured in the blood and urine of residents. Many of the subjects were 5-year-old children. They were found to have damaged DNA, leaving them deformed and diseased for life.
Doing business with the corrupt and war-torn territories is the price we pay for using lithium batteries as the primary storage mechanism of solar power.
The future disposal of lithium batteries offers as many, if not more, challenges than gel batties. Fires caused by incorrectly disposed lithium batteries can burn for many years, polluting the environment.
Solar Energy Fails The Sustainability Test
Based on the above, although Solar Power may be renewable, the production of the parts and batteries is very destructive and not sustainable.
Is There Any Hope That This Can Be Corrected?
New technologies are being developed to reduce or eliminate environmental and social costs.
In the Netherlands, searchers have developed the aqua battery, a zero-impact battery using water.
The solar panel passes an electric current through salt water. During the charging phase, the diluted saltwater is split into concentrated salt water and fresh water in a unique membrane stack which stores it separately. The separation occurs dues to a process known as Electrodialysis (ED).
When the power is needed, the two elements are recombined, the process is reversed, and previously collected energy is released. The released energy is converted into electricity.
If commercially successful, this development will reverse solar power’s negatives, making solar energy the cleanest, most accessible renewable energy source.
In most respects, solar power is renewable. However, there are serious sustainability issues with the manufacture and eventual disposal of the batteries.
Energy from renewable technologies cannot always be produced on demand and when needed. It needs to be stored for when it is required (night, cloudy, windless days, etc.). This creates the need to store excess power for later use.
The problems associated with the equation’s storage (battery) side are ruinous. The manufacture and subsequent disposal of the batteries involve unacceptably high social and environmental costs, and alternative solutions need to be found urgently.