By Mark Halper
Posting in Design
Solar isn't always squeaky clean. A Chinese plant dumps deadly toxins. Villagers riot. It's all another reason why Beijing will lead a global nuclear resurgence.
One reason why solar prices are plunging: China, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, pares costs via lax environmental controls.
That issue came to a violent head 90 miles southwest of Shanghai where hundreds of villagers stormed a Jinko Solar facility over the weekend. They were enraged that Jinko released deadly toxins into a local river, killing fish, according to the Guardian.
After riot police suppressed the action, NYSE-listed Jinko, based in Haining, Zhejiang province, apologized.
"Zhejiang Jinko has always paid a great deal of attention to environmental issues and complies with and follows the state's relevant demands," company spokesman Jing Zhaohui told a news conference,” Reuters reported. "In the course of doing so, this incident still happened, and we cannot shirk responsibility for the legal consequences which have come from management slips," he added. The company "sincerely apologizes" and would take "appropriate" steps to clear up the pollution.
Residents have expressed deep concern over the direct effect of the plant’s waterborne and airborne discharge on human health. The fish deaths have been linked to fluoride.
The protest underscores that China has gained a competitive advantage in the solar panel business by cutting environmental procedures. Westerners also complain that Beijing provides massive subsidies to the industry. The plummeting price of Chinese solar panels has helped drive three U.S. solar companies into bankruptcy recently – Evergreen, SpectraWatt and Solyndra. It has also spurred solar uptake among consumers and business users.
Haining reminds us that there is no such thing as a purely “green” energy alternative to the fossil fuels that are infamous for releasing environmentally harmful CO2 and other greenhouse gases. All renewables have some ecological blemish. Solar manufacturing can be toxic. Wind turbines kill birds. Geothermal has been known to trigger minor earthquakes; one form even releases very minor doses of CO2. Hydro can destroy wildlife habitats. Nuclear potentially wipes out populations, although its safety record in the big picture has been good.
The weekend protest was the latest example of growing anger among Chinese citizens about industrial pollution. One of the biggest environmental culprits in China has been the legions of coal-fired power plants that produce most of the country’s electricity that powers economic growth. If the Communist Party is to truly clean things up, those belchers will have to fade away.
The autocratic technocrats who run the country recognize that. While they will deploy a fair amount of solar and wind gear, it looks to me like they will lean heavily on nuclear. They have plans for as many as 100 new nuclear stations by 2030 -that's nearly a quarter of the number of commercially operating nuclear plants in the world today.
Beijing is ploughing resources into nuclear research and development, advancing technologies other than conventional pressurized water and boiling water reactors that could represent a safer and more cost-effective nuclear future (it was a BWR that melted down at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant). They are also working on conventional nuclear designs.
Watch for China to lead a global nuclear resurgence as it maps out sustainable economic growth in a pollution-light manner. Let’s just hope that it exercises greater safety than it has shown in the solar business.
Photo: Top, moneywatch.bnet; Bottom, Wikimedia Commons
- WikiLeaks: U.S. fears unsafe nuclear reactors in China
- Nuclear: Japan, no. China?
- The new face of safe nuclear
- The world's largest solar plant
- Shock technology shift at huge California solar plant
- U.S. solar PV will nearly triple this year
- Solar price free fall, Part 2
- If China leads the world in clean tech, why are people dying?
Sep 19, 2011
Even with the decreasing costs of solar, it's still not economical. For example. the article says that "The plummeting price of Chinese solar panels has ... also spurred solar uptake among consumers and business users". If you look at the article cited there, it says much of the increase in solar will be in California by utilities. But utilities in California are under a state law that says 33% of power must be renewables by 2020. They have no choice but to install solar at any price -- which will be passed on to California's ratepayers. Solar has niche uses. But it's still not a baseload solution, It still can't take the place of coal and natural gas. And at mandated levels of 33%, you have to keep a lot of these conventional plants idle during the day so you can have power at night. Nobody factors that cost in.
Granted, we should do everything in our power to promote robotic solar panel and battery factories, as that is the ONLY way solar would ever be cheap enough to store. And I don't even care if China gets much of the market... as long as we get thousands of square miles of install jobs (we can not let middlemen gouge profits from any source)! Anyways, Our leaders and corporations have taken great strides in developing THE WORST possible reactor design. It "wants" to blow up (because it is pressurized). It "wants" to blow up (because if the water gets too hot, will turn to hydrogen). It "wants" to spew radiation (because it can not passively shut down) and it "NEEDS" us to continuously babysit it's aging fleet. Eventually they WILL meltdown, all 450 of them worldwide (unless dismantled before any crises events occur). In sharp contrast, 50 years ago, ORNL developed, demonstrated and proved that a little thorium in an (already) molten state is the safest and most efficient way to fission. Also, development of the IFR, another safe reactor that can also "eat" LWR wastes... was canceled because our "American way" just does not want to provide safe and reliable clean energy to the people for less. They would rather sink us into fossil fueled (and inherently unsafe reactor design) depletion!
One of the first wind installations was built in Altamont Pass in California. It was notorious for killing birds. But it was built on a bird flyway and the wind turbines were small and fast rotating. Nowadays before a wind power installation is sited they have to make sure it's not on a bird flyway and the bigger slower turning turbines are not as dangerous to birds. That's not to say that there are no bird kills but it's much reduced from the early days. Oddly enough though wind turbines have been killing bats at an increasing rate. Bats can easily avoid the turbine blades but if they are too close when the blade passes the changing air pressure will kill the bat by giving it the bends.
Wind kills birds? Come on. Anyone in the energy business knows that's a crock. Wind turbines have a very low kill rate compared to other forms of energy. Nuclear has a good record? With four reactor meltdowns and a long list of near misses plus multiple 'leaks' you declare nuclear has a good record? Cleaning up solar panel manufacturing is not expensive, it won't appreciably increase panel prices. And, according to some in the business, some Chinese manufacturers are costing themselves money by not capturing emissions and reusing the chemicals.
On balance its important to note the successes of solar production in well regulated countries. The second largest producer of solar PV in the world is Tempe, Arizona based First Solar who produces at a profit PV cells that are cheaper than China's. Falling prices are also the function of economies of scale. The more units made - the cheaper it is to make them. Economies of scale are joining force with converging technologies and will create an energy revolution that truly will change the world for the better - so as long as reason prevails over fear. General Electric is making great strides in attacking the capital costs of hydrogen production. If you will take a moment to consider the impact of lowered costs you may begin to realize the possibilities at hand.
In China where the environment kills, people are rising up protesting companies that pollute the environment. In the US where the last 40 years we've had the EPA protecting waterways, air and toxins in general, people are protesting the government for protecting Americans with onerous regulations.
You are right... bottom line is very simple, thorium based reactors do not produce wastes that could be used for building flying things that would explode... so let's keep building plutonium producers... Bottom line of our energy needs is very simple... we got to a point there is too much of us in the planet. Lots of us complain about the dooms-dayers of global warming, but they never looked over the glacial in Patagonia, in the extreme of South America... They are visibly shrinking year after year. Until we have consciously looked the overpopulation and made something about it, I can't see how we could improve the overall life quality in this planet.
I'm glad someone besides me made that connection. I agree that bureaucracy can be pretty expensive, but I'd bet that if we dropped all the regulations to save money, companies would regress to how this company in China acted. On a side note, I never realized that wind turbines killed birds! Makes sense though...
Without considering costs in relationship to benefits, there is no way to efficiently implement policy. If the stated standard is 100% environmental quality, then you will never achieve it, and will more than likely achieve worse. The only reason that you see an uprising against "onerous regulations" is because regulators are not driven by science, engineers, or even economics, but politics.
As someone who grew up in LA in the '60s and '70s, I remember the shortness of breath late in the afternoon from breathing ozone. EPA regs back then did a lot to clean up the air. But there's such a thing as going too far. The EPA has cracked down on all the big stuff. Now they have nothing to do but go after small stuff such as the charcoal lighter people use on their weekend BBQs. It's a bureaucracy in search of a mission to occupy its accumulated bloat. Unfortunately, there's no way to measure the costs of restrictions on people's lives against even one theoretical death. As a result, any measure, no matter how small, is justified to "save lives".
There is little evidence that EPA regulations fit in the category of "onerous regulations" In fact the evidence shows that in general the benefits far exceed the costs for most EPA regulations. See the link below for a cost/benefit analysis regarding the Clean Air Act. http://www.epa.gov/air/sect812/