Solar power industry responsible for large lead emissions

Solar cellsThe fact that the use of fossil fuels can be harmful for the environment is well known. Previous research even showed that coal-fired power plants are responsible for heavy metal emissions like mercury and we all know that the lead additive that used to be in gasoline was banned for a reason. But now new research surprisingly shows that solar power, an energy source everybody considers green, isn’t so environmentally friendly either.

The study appearing in the journal Energy Policy shows that solar power is the cause of large lead emissions in China and India. The reason for this is that solar power systems in these countries rely heavily on lead batteries for energy storage, due to their inadequate power grids. This could potentially lead to a release of more than 2.4 million tons of lead into the environment, forming a danger not just for the environment itself, but also for human health.

Lead poisoning

Although a single high dose of lead can cause severe emergency symptoms, it is more common for lead poisoning to build up slowly over time. Initially, it can be hard to detect since signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated. But eventually lead poisoning can lead to many adverse health effects, including a decline in mental functioning and memory loss, damage to the cardiovascular system and miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women.

Just a little while back China closed 583 of their lead battery and manufacturing plants due to a large number of mass lead poisoning incidents in the vicinity of the plants.

Increased use of solar power

China and India have both set on aspiring missions to increase the amount of solar power generation in underserved regions. China aims to add 1.6 GW of solar capacity by 2020, while India sets the bar even higher with a goal of 12 GW by 2022, in addition to 20 million solar lanterns. For comparison, this amount combined would be enough to keep about 20 million European households or 10 million American households going for a year.

Lead pollution

China and India’s lead mining, battery production and recycling industries are relatively inefficient, with China’s lead leak into the environment at 33 per cent and India’s at 22 per cent. The researchers looked at the number of lead batteries used in existing solar power systems and, with the solar energy plans in mind, they extrapolated this to estimate environmental lead emissions for the planned systems.

According to the scientists, the new solar energy systems of both countries combined will be good for 2400 kilotons of environmental lead loss, equal to about one-third of global lead production.

Solar industry has to step up

The heavy reliance of the solar industry on lead batteries is not just limited to China and India, but also applies to other countries with underdeveloped power grids, like much of the developing world. It is exactly those countries that rely heaviest on solar power for their energy needs.

As long as the reliance on lead battery technology remains, the solar industry has to step up and take responsibility for ensuring that their lead battery suppliers are operating with adequate controls. Without improvements the use of lead batteries will continue to cause environmental pollution and pose a risk to human health, especially with the rising demand for lead batteries.

© Jorn van Dooren |

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