Intelligent Energy

The dirty side of solar

The dirty side of solar

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.

Protesters at the gates of the Jinko Solar plant in Haining

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.

Daya Bay nuclear plant in Shenzhen

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

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure