The Tampa Electric Company (TECO) announced plans to rely more on solar energy earlier this month. Though becoming green is a growing trend, it may not be as clean and free as it seems.
According to TECO’s Web site, the company signed a contract with Energy 5.0, a company that specializes in renewable energy production, to purchase solar energy from a plant that will be built in Polk County by 2011.
Connie Mizak, instructor for the environmental science and policy program, said solar power is a good source of energy compared to other types.
“Traditional sources of energy are produced with fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil, which are non-renewable and contributing to climate change and other air and water quality problems,” she said. “Nuclear-based energy has no air emissions, but does result in an abundance of radioactive waste products that must be disposed of properly.”
However, some feel solar energy is no less faulty than other energy sources.
“People sell all the positives of solar energy and don’t really discuss the negative aspects. The manufacturing of photovoltaic cells uses a high amount of energy,” said Marla Russell, senior environmental specialist for Progress Energy Florida Inc. “It’s OK if they’re not making the cells in your community and polluting your water and air.”
Photovoltaic cells are flat panels used to gather solar energy and change sunlight directly into electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Russell said the manufacturing process produces a byproduct of heavy metals that are a marine toxin.
Some solar plants are made of solar thermal collectors rather than photovoltaic cells.
Thermal collection works essentially the same way as generating energy from fossil fuels, according to the EIA Web site.
“Instead of using steam produced from the combustion of fossil fuels, the steam is produced by the heat collected from sunlight,” the site states.
With other types of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, energy must be stored for use during times without sun or wind. Storing this energy can also present environmental problems, Russell said.
“Then there are the batteries, because you have to store the energy somehow,” she said. “Batteries are associated with other poisons and heavy metals.”
Other than environmental concerns, different energy sources are associated with different costs.
“Solar panels, as with any so-called ‘alternatives,’ are going to cause price increases because they’re not cost effective yet,” Russell said. “Solar equipment is still very expensive.”
Mizak said the costs are decreasing as the technology becomes more efficient, but solar power is typically more expensive than traditional power sources.
Mizak and Russell both said solar energy is being used on a small scale in Florida. The most common use in the state is heating pools. Some public parks and elementary schools use solar power to augment part of their energy use, and USF uses solar power to run Blue Light emergency telephones.
For more information on the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy, visit facts-about-solar-energy.com.