Raining on the parade of solar panel lighting systems endorsed by ex-British PM Tony Blair and superstar Jet Li, the SCMP recently presented some sobering statistics about the real cost of these “environmentally friendly” lights.
According to a very in-depth feature in the (unfortunately paywalled) newspaper, each Chinese factory burns over 40kg of coal to produce the panels that Blair and Li were touting as a way to reduce pollution:
Forty kilograms might not sound much. But even the country’s least efficient coal-fired power plant would generate 130 kilowatt-hours of electricity burning that amount – enough power to keep a 22 watt LED light bulb beaming 12 hours a day for 30 years. A solar panel is designed to last just 20 years.
Jian Shuisheng , a professor of optical technology at Beijing Jiaotong University, estimates it takes 10kg of polysilicon to produce a solar panel with a capacity of one kilowatt – just enough to generate the energy to keep a fridge cool for a day. To make that much polysilicon on the mainland would require the burning of more than two tonnes of coal. That amount of coal could generate enough electricity to keep the fridge running for two decades.
The main problem, as with many industries in China, is that there has been very little regulation of “green business” – allowing factories that churn out these eco-options to be pretty darn dirty themselves. Besides burning tons of low-grade coal, thanks to lower air quality regulations than Western countries, these panel producers are also sending toxic chemicals from the process of making polysilicon – such as chlorine and trichlorosilane – into the skies.
We can’t account for the calculations the SCMP made in this article, though we’d be very interested to see if someone can counter them, but we’ve long known that some solar is cleaner than others – we hope Blair and Li take that into account as well.