Media coverage of the energy industry often makes the players seem like the cast of a Hollywood Western.
Coal and oil companies are the bad guys, ruining the environment and abusing the villagers for a quick buck. They are winning until wind and solar developers ride into town like the cavalry, their turbines and solar panels providing cheap, clean, and renewable electricity for all. Roll credits.
Well, not quite. But in places like China, Ireland and Mexico, the villagers have become wary of the cavalry for good reason.
The high expense of installing solar technology has made cheap, mass-produced Chinese panels commonplace, with seven of the world’s top 10 panel makers hailing from the country. But new research has shown how the severely polluting processes used to manufacture PV panels in China are outweighing the environmental benefits these panels provide.
Dr. Fengqi You from the Argonne National Laboratory estimated that “the environmental cost of Chinese-made solar panels is about twice that of those made in Europe.” It has become increasingly clear that in order to maintain their competitiveness, certain Chinese suppliers are cutting corners that create risks for their employees, clients, and people who live near their plants.
In a survey of 50 Chinese factories from 2011 to 2013, SolarBuyer found defect rates for solar panels ranging from 5.5 to 22 percent. Many of these stem from the use of cheap, sub-standard coating materials that save money but have been shown to be a fire hazard. An investigation by PV Evolution Labs in California found industry leaders subcontracting production to small Chinese plants where they had no real control.
Given that the manufacturing of PV panels involves the use of the most potent greenhouse gas in existence, sulphur hexafluoride, as well as carcinogenic chemicals like cadmium, lead and cadmium VI, any lapses in standards can have costly results.
In Haining, in China’s Zhejiang Province, a solar module factory belches out pollution from a dozen smokestacks and vomits waste into the river so that Jinko Solar, the seventh biggest solar module manufacturer in the world, can supply global demand.
Starting in 2011, reports of dying fish and children with excessive levels of lead in their blood led hundreds of protesters to storm the factory, only to be violently repulsed by riot police. Protests against industrial pollution are hardly uncommon in China, but the targeting of solar panel makers was new.
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Wind energy developers in Ireland and Mexico have also taken a beating in public opinion.
In an effort to draw 40 percent of its energy from wind as well as sell power to the UK, the Irish government is planning to dot the hills of County Laois and beyond with towering turbines. More than 100 opposition groups have sprung up to protest the move. Protest leader Ray Conroy says that locals were given no warning before being told that wind farms would be put up in short order.
Despite this widespread dismay, the Irish planning authority, An Bord Pleanála, gave permission for a wind farm -- including 14 turbines of 131.5 meters high -- to go ahead in County Laois.
Unilateral planning seems to have become standard operating procedure for many wind farms. Swimming in confidence that their projects are environmentally friendly, wind developers seem to be assuming that they will face little if any public resistance.
And yet, though expert reviews have thoroughly debunked earlier notions that wind turbines cause noise pollution or can cause illness, the concerns of local communities are not so easily dismissed.
In Mexico, the wind power industry is still growing, but the fate of Mareña Renovables stands as a warning.
The project was once projected to be the largest of its kind in Latin America, located in Oaxaca’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. But the plans of a powerful consortium that has included Macquarie Bank, Mitsubishi and Dutch pension fund PGGM were derailed when the local Huave people blocked off roads, and forced officials to rip up the contract. They claimed that developers had increased the projected number of turbines from 40 to 132 without warning, similar to the County Laois case. Protests began in 2012 and continued until this January when PGGM announced the project was being written off.
The failure of protests in Ireland and China, and their success in Mexico, point to the same conclusion: If wind and solar energy producers want viable, long-term commercial success, they need to stop relying on their green cachet and begin conducting business with more integrity and transparency, both on the production line and in their dealings with the public.
By Chris Dalby