Updated Jan 20, 2023
The connection between climate change and fossil fuel consumption is becoming increasingly clear. Though using fossil fuel is steeped in our everyday activities, continued reliance on this nonrenewable energy source has led to a slew of environmental issues, some irreversible.
Naturally, a desire to lower greenhouse gas emissions has resulted in the search for clean energy alternatives, and solar power is at the forefront. Despite its rise in popularity and production, misconceptions about “green” solar energy are still pervading everyday discussions about renewable energy. Misinformation regarding solar battery storage is especially present.
For homeowners with photovoltaic panels (solar PV) that want to have a backup energy source, they must install solar batteries. The same goes for large solar facilities that want to store excess energy generated from their solar panels.
These batteries are usually lithium or lead-based — materials that pose a huge environmental and public health threat. As the demand and use of solar batteries increases, so do these hazards.
Solar batteries and energy production may not lower your carbon footprint as much as you think. We’ve uncovered more about these solar batteries and their risks.
While it’s true that using solar energy as a source of power results in lowered carbon emissions, the life cycle of batteries used for storing energy generated by solar can have environmental consequences. Some of these consequences may even counter the current environmental benefits of solar energy.
When lead batteries are manufactured and recycled, the process can release lead particulates into the atmosphere. The emissions created in the manufacturing process often exceed reasonable levels set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Lead can also contribute to soil contamination, especially if lead batteries end up in landfills. Soil contaminated with lead is the main contributor to an increase of lead found in children, which has a detrimental impact on growth and development.
The dangers of lead-contaminated soil don’t stop at children — adults are impacted too. Lead exposure in adults is associated with higher blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Though lead battery recycling programs exist worldwide, the practice is often unregulated. The mishandling of lead during the recycling process can lead to environmental contamination. If the lead recycled from batteries is impure, the quality isn’t sufficient to use in new batteries. If that’s the case, components need to be remelted, which continues the cycle of lead emissions.
Though they don’t contain materials like mercury, cadmium, or lead, lithium batteries can include other heavy metals that may harm the environment. Mining and extracting lithium and other metals uses large amounts of energy and water — about 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium.
The regions of the world with a large lithium supply — Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile — are also some of the driest places on earth. The consumption of water for lithium mining has impacted many farmers in the region, many of whom have had to source water from elsewhere.
In North America, lithium is extracted from rocks using chemicals. Researchers have found that the leaching of these chemicals has affected wildlife as far as 150 miles away. In addition to causing potential harm to wildlife, lithium extraction can contaminate soil and create air pollution — both in the mining and recycling processes.
It isn’t always clear what goes into lithium-ion batteries. Manufacturers can be secretive about components, making it difficult to recycle or dispose of batteries properly at the end of their life span. Improper handling of lithium batteries can lead to fires, even while the batteries operate, creating potential physical dangers.
Nuclear and hydropower plants have minimal consequences compared to solar energy and storage. Natural gas power produces only a modest amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, these energy industries are well-established and provide less expensive power than solar.
Generating power from renewable energy resources can create an unresolvable dilemma — that even clean energy has an environmental impact. Until technology and extraction methods improve in the solar industry, weighing the downsides and benefits of various power sources is critical before exalting one as the best solution for sustainability.
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