After running into that “solar fleecing” site that described solar leases as a scam, I had some trepidations about the contract we had just signed. After all, this was a 20-year commitment. Since we had a window of opportunity where we could cancel the process, I got online and did my research.
My worries related to that particular site were quickly dispelled once I realized that it was created with the ulterior motive of drawing in customers, preferably to their loan system (which simply makes you indebted to the bank rather than a solar leasing company; for a more rational, less partisan comparison of solar loans vs. solar leases, visit EnergySage).
The site also tries to convince visitors to patronize them by articulating something that I already knew to be true: leasing solar panels is not as good of a return on your investment as buying solar panels outright. This argument seems to be articulated mainly for those people who can afford to buy panels in the first place—and as I’ve said before, for that group of folks, buying solar panels outright is the way to go. It’s an amazing investment right now and you can more directly reap the benefits of the various tax incentives that are in place. But as someone who can’t afford the upfront costs, this isn’t really applicable to me.
So further research dispelled that “solar fleecing” anxiety. However, one big worry that lingered in the back of my mind was an issue that a couple of my friends had brought up—namely that many solar panels are made using rare earth elements.
As Stuart Elms (CEO of UK’s Viridian Solar) points out, “rare earths” is a bit of a misnomer. While cerium oxide is sometimes used in the production of solar panels, most of the elements involved aren’t technically among the rare earth elements of the periodic table. However, getting to some of these resources can be tricky. Most notably, cadmium telluride (CdTe) is used to create inexpensive and efficient photovoltaic film. Cadmium (Cd) is not rare. It’s a waste product of many other mining and manufacturing processes and photovoltaics are actually a safe place to put it, since it can be hazardous when not combined with other elements. Tellurium (Te), however, is three times rarer than gold, and getting your hands on it is geopolitically complicated (China controls about 95% of rare earth element exports and 47% of US imports of tellurium, for instance, so Chinese markets have a lot of global economic impact when businesses do things like reduce mining operations). The worry is that solar panels might not be that great of an idea if they are dependent on finite resources and can’t genuinely create a sustainable future.
This is a complex issue, and the debate continues from many perspectives. My take on it: The use of rare earth elements and scarce resources is a real concern in the production of electricity-generating solar panels—but even more so in the production of energy-consuming products like computers and cell phones which also use rare earths, are totally pervasive in every aspect of our lives, and don’t contribute any electricity back to the larger system. And while finite resources like oil and coal are simply burned away (emitting greenhouse gases that change our planet’s climate, with the energy produced never to be captured again), tellurium is being used in photovoltaics to contribute energy for 30 years or more, after which they can be recycled to be used in future solar panels.
Increased photovoltaic recycling has meant that there’s more tellurium to go around outside of its raw production. If unit efficiency of tellurium continues to improve as predicted, the impacts of photovoltaic recycling processes are expected to create a decline in tellurium demand after 2020, even though more people will want solar panels at that time.
The Center for Alternative Technology gives a very thorough explanation of the less-than-perfect steps involved in the production of photovoltaics (all the way down to safety concerns involving Cadmium that only arise in industrial fires exceeding 1050 degrees C), but also gives a great response for why it’s still a good idea to use solar panels:
“…it is important to take these issues in context. All electronic equipment can cause these concerns, and whereas many electrical goods are only designed to last for a couple of years, PV panels are expected to last for at least 30 years (here at CAT we have some that are 15 years old and still functioning well). Furthermore, PV panels are used in place of other sources of electricity which have a much greater environmental impact per unit of electricity generated.”
Really what this whole issue brings up is the glaring fact that every aspect of the manufacturing supply chain (for any product) is steeped in millions of tiny lesser-evil decisions that add up to a massive unsustainable system. For far too long the driving incentive behind our consumer culture (and corporate culture of the bottom line) has been affordable materials, with little thought to hidden costs and externalities. Externalities basically occur when entities outside the (imagined) closed system of a private business are unwittingly harmed or benefited by the actions of that business (such as people breathing toxic fumes from a factory, or any ecological impact that a company has). As many scholars point out, when private businesses minimize costs from their own manufacturing process, it is often the natural environment (and the people it surrounds) that take the actual burden of that cost. In the study of externalities, there’s even an argument to be made that arrangements like solar leases—where companies share the burden of risk with a consumer—can lead to the reduction of environmental externalities by encouraging companies to innovate. More on that later.
Put simply, we need more companies built on systems thinking.
Having fewer tchotchkes in our lives (and recycling those items that we’re done with—especially electronics) is a good thing. Getting solar panels is a good thing. They may look like really big tchotchkes, but they’re actually busily displacing their carbon footprint through the production of renewable electricity.