Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bad government incentives make solar panels not so green

As with all things, I think Obama's big push for alternative fuels will result in a lot of bad choices for the environment, as economic efficiency is often tied to energetic efficiency – simply put, it's hard and expensive to extract fuels in inefficient ways. This argument would seem to fall apart in the face of the dominance of dirty coal and oil, but if you look at the goods that use or energy or otherwise affect its consumption (i.e., all of them), the market is heavily skewed in favor of big, dense buildings that require lots of energy for construction, temperature control, transportation to and from, and furnishings/decoration/the stuff you put inside.

Anyway, I've noticed this theory borne out recently – with corn ethanol, non-food biofuels, and some wind power – and tonight I read an article in Foreign Policy about a potentially ecologically destructive compound used in the production of photovoltaic solar panels.

Think switching to solar energy will make you green? Think again. Many of the newest solar panels are manufactured with a gas that is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming. [...]

Nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, is used for cleaning microcircuits during the manufacture of a host of modern electronics, including flat-screen TVs, iPhones, computer chips—and thin-film solar panels, the latest (and cheapest) generation of solar photovoltaics. [...] For the past decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has actively encouraged its use. NF3 also wasn’t deemed dangerous enough to be covered by the Kyoto Protocol, making it an attractive substitute for companies and signatory countries eager to lower their emissions footprints.

It turns out that NF3 might not be so green after all. “NF3 has a potential greenhouse impact larger than … even that of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants,” according to a June 2008 study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. Because NF3 isn’t covered by Kyoto, few attempts have been made to measure it in the atmosphere. But last October, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported that four times more NF3 is present in the atmosphere than industry estimates suggest, and its concentration is rising 11 percent a year.

Compared with the damage caused by CO2 emissions, NF3 remains a blip because far less of it is emitted. But Ray Weiss, who led the Scripps team, thinks that, unless regulations require more complete greenhouse gas measurements, more unpleasant surprises will be in store. With NF3, he says, “We’re finding considerably more in the atmosphere than was expected. This [gas] won’t be the only example of that.”

Three important things in here: first, NF3 is apparently responsible for much of the price drop in PV panels. Secondly, the EPA has been encouraging the use of this potentially dangerous compound above the market equilibrium. And thirdly, these scientists fully expect to find more compounds that are more dangerous than scientists and regulators thought. Meaning, this isn't going to be the only regulatory mistake that encourages pollutants in the air.

1 comment:

ali said...

where does this leave us poorly guided citizens, who already are to busy working 2 jobs to get bills paid? This article just feels like one big guilt trip! NF3's are bad, but what can we do?