Monday, June 04, 2018

The Latest Weak Attacks on EVs and Solar Panels

Over the past two weeks, media attacks on solar panels and electric vehicles have been followed by Trump administration policies aimed at boosting their fossil fueled rivals.

Efforts to undermine solar power
Hurricane Destroys Solar Farm in Puerto Rico (Credit: Bob Meinetz) Click to Enlarge.
The first salvo came via a Forbes article written by Michael Shellenberger, who’s running a doomed campaign for California governor and really loves nuclear power.  Shellenberger’s critique focused on the problem of potential waste at the end of a solar panel lifespan when the modules must be disposed or recycled.  It’s a somewhat ironic concern from a proponent of nuclear power, which has a rather bigger toxic waste problem.

About 80% of a solar panel module can be recycled, but some portions cannot, and create potentially hazardous waste due to the presence of metals like cadmium and lead.  The Electric Power Research Institute notes that long-term storage of used panels until recycling technologies become available may be the best option for dealing with this waste stream.  Ultimately, it’s an issue that will need to be addressed as solar panels become more widespread and reach the end of their 25-plus year lifespan, much like the issue of nuclear waste.  But it’s an issue that we should be able to resolve with smart policies and technologies.

It’s also not a big near-term concern, unlike the urgent need to deploy low-carbon energy, or an immediate pollution problem like for example the environmental crises that result when oil rigs fail or coal barges sink into rivers.

Shellenberger also raised concerns about the possibility “that cadmium can be washed out of solar modules by rainwater.”  But that’s only a problem for broken panels, which are relatively rare except perhaps in the wake a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake.  In a disaster area, leaching of metals from some broken solar panels is the least of a city’s problems.

In short, it’s valid to note that end-of-life solar panel recycling and disposal is an issue that we’ll have to address smartly, but unlike climate change, it’s not a big or urgent concern.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration is planning to order grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal power plants to extend their lives.  This is the latest in the administration’s misguided campaign to save the dying coal industry, which can no longer compete in the free market against cheaper, cleaner alternatives.  As a result, coal power plants have continued to shut down at a rapid rate.  Those coal plants pose a much greater threat of pollution, including from heavy metals.

Denying the imminent transition to EVs
The Chevrolet Bolt EV (foreground) is just the beginning of GM's upcoming battery- or fuel cell-powered electric vehicle lineup. (Credit: General Motors) Click to Enlarge.
In the New York Times, conservative opinion columnist Bret Stephens devoted an editorial last week to attacking Tesla specifically, and electric cars in general.  There are valid reasons to criticize Tesla – the company regularly falls short of its ambitious production goals – but Stephens’ piece went far beyond what’s fair.  For example it called the Tesla Model 3 “a lemon” because Consumer Reports initially did not recommend the vehicle due primarily to issues with braking distance during its tests.  Within about a week, Tesla issued a software update to correct the braking problem, and the Model 3 earned its Consumer Reports recommendation.  Worse yet, Stephens declared that gasoline is the fuel of the future:
The terrible idea is that electric cars are the wave of the future, at least for the mass market.  Gasoline has advantages in energy density, cost, infrastructure and transportability that electricity doesn’t and won’t for decades.
That’s equivalentt to saying in 1910 that horses have advantages over automobiles, and will continue to dominate the transportation market.  The experts disagree.  The International Energy Agency estimated that global electric vehicle ownership increased 54% from 2016 to 2017, to 3.1 million EVs, and projects that number will increase 40-fold to 125 million by 2030.  Virtually every major automaker is developing electric cars.  GM plans to launch 20 new all-electric models by 2023 and the company “believes in an all-electric future.”  Nissan plans to launch 8 new all-electric models by 2020 and hopes to sell 1 million EVs per year by that date.

Read more at The Latest Weak Attacks on EVs and Solar Panels

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