Can a solar-powered plane help curb climate change?


If you are among those who believe that the environmental movement needs more upbeat and inspiring stories, and less gloom and doom, you will want to hear about Bertrand Piccard, Andre Borschberg and their solar-powered airplane, Solar Impulse.

Solar Impulse is an engineering marvel. Its has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 — it’s 208 feet across — yet weighs only about 3,500 pounds, about the same as mid-sized family car. Powered only by the light of the sun, which is captured in nearly 12,000 solar cells (built by US manufacturer SunPower) arrayed on the wings, it can reach an altitude of more than 27,000 feet and stay aloft for more than 24 hours, day and night. In May, Piccard and Borschberg, the Swiss adventurers who founded and built Solar Impulse will fly the plane from California to Virginia.

Piccard, left, and Borschberg
Piccard, left, and Borschberg

This is very cool. I’m not a tech geek, but I was intrigued enough to take the opportunity to meet Andre Borschberg when he visited Washington early this week. Piccard, who is the better known of the duo, comes from a family of explorers; his grandfather August was the first person to pilot a balloon into the stratosphere, and see the curvature of the earth with his own eyes. He’s a psychiatrist by profession. Borschberg, by contrast, is a 60-year-old MIT-trained engineer and entrepreneur, who led the team of engineers, physicists, software designers and who have spent nearly a decade (and about $120 million) designing and building several versions of the aircraft. A round-the-world trip is planned for 2015. [click to continue…]

An NFL rivalry…over solar

Dan Snyder, the owner of The Washington Redskins, is not exactly a tree-hugger. To the contrary, he once offered to pay the National Park Service $25,000 to cut down trees on federal land near his estate overlooking the Potomac River. So when Snyder embraces solar power, by installing more than 8,000 solar panels at FedEx Field, well, that tells you something.

It tells you that the economics of solar make sense–because Snyder is known for extracting every dollar he can from the business of the Redskins.

It also tells you that he’s a competitor.  The Redskins deal with NRG Energy, a Princeton, N.J.-based independent power producer,  took root at last year’s Super Bowl, after the NFL East rival Philadelphia Eagles announced that they were installing solar, wind and biofuel energy at Lincoln Financial Field. [See my 2010 blogpost, Climate leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles].

No surprise, then, that the Redskins/NRG announcement made a point of calling the solar project “the largest installation at an NFL stadium.” It’s also the largest solar installation in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

While I prefer baseball to football, and the New York Giants to the Redskins (despite last Sunday’s game), I made the trek  to FedEx field by Metro today to see the solar panels and hear what Snyder and David Crane, the CEO of NRG, had to say about them. [click to continue…]

Solar power’s dirty secrets

Maybe we should banish the term “clean energy.” Growing corn for ethanol requires fertilizers and pesticides. Producing and shipping small-scale wind turbines for urban areas generates more CO2 than they save. Production of polysilicon for solar panels leaves a trail of toxic waste in China, as The Washington Post reported back in 2008.

Solar_PanelsNow a survey and scorecard that ranks solar energy firms points to potential environmental, health and safety issues associated with the production and disposal of solar photovoltaic panels–as well as the reluctance of some well-known industry players even to talk about their practices.

The survey comes from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an activist group that has produced similar scorecards of the computer and TV industries, designed the shame the laggards into reform. (In the argot of environmental activists, this tactic is known as “rank ’em and spank ’em.“)  SVTC is calling for mandatory takeback and responsible recycling by solar companies as a step toward reducing the solar industry’s environmental footprint.

Maybe the most striking thing about the survey was how many solar companies felt free to ignore it. Only 14 companies replied, representing about 25% of the industry’s module production in 2008, according to the SVTC. Well-known companies that did not respond include California-based Solyndra–which has been offered a $535-million loan guarantee by the U.S. Department of Energy–and venture-backed startups Miasole, Nanosolar and Konarka. Other companies that did not respond to the SVTC include Silicon Valley-based SunPower; Suntech, the Chinese solar giant that plans to open a plant in Arizona; and Japanese electronics firm Sharp.

Sheila Davis, the executive director of the activist group, told me she wasn’t surprised at the lack of response.

“We’ve done scorecards in the past, and in the first round, we typically get a low response rate,” she said. “Our experience is after a couple of years, companies are knocking on your door to participate because it becomes a competitive issue.”

The top three scores in the SVTC survey were earned by German manufacturers Calyxo, SolarWorld and Sovello, scoring 90, 88 and 73 respectively. The two U.S.-based respondents scored in the mid range: First Solar in Arizona received a score of 67 and Colorado-based Abound received a 63.

Other key findings:

  • 57% of respondents would support mandatory takeback and recycling programs in the markets where they sell solar panels.
  • 42.8% of companies are setting aside money to finance the collection and disposal of end-of-life panels and 50% said that they provide recycling services free of charge.
  • 50% have undertaken analysis of their supply chain to document the social and environmental impacts associated with different production phases.

The reason why take-back and recycling programs are so important in solar, as they are in other industries, is that when companies understand that they will be responsible for the end-of-life of a product, they have an incentive to rethink their design and materials. “There are hazardous materials and rare metals in solar panels that don’t belong in landfills,” Davis said. “Anytime you have a product that you can’t recycle, that’s waste, and it’s a pollution problem.”

How big a problem? SVTC estimates that announced utility-scale solar panel projects in the state of California alone will generate about 1.5 billion pounds of panel waste.

The good news? Because panels last 20 to 25 years, companies and their customers have time to get a recycling infrastructure together.

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