HEALTH & ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS & BENEFITS OF AUSTRALIAN SOLAR
OK, so we all know that solar is popular, at least with the general public, but what are the costs associated with large scale solar energy production in Australia?
The Australian Institute published a detailed report back in 2014 addressing both the costs and benefits, and if you're keen on the detail you can skip straight to the report here->, but if it's all a bit too much then let me get you up to date!
Things have progressed some way since this report was published, and, to quote Wikepedia:
"As of December 2017, Australia had over 7,024 MW of installed photovoltaic (PV) solar power, of which 1,190 MW were installed in the preceding 12 months. In 2017, 23 solar PV projects with a combined installed capacity of 2,034 MW were either under construction, constructed or due to start construction having reached financial closure...The installed PV capacity in Australia has increased 10-fold between 2009 and 2011, and quadrupled between 2011 and 2016."
This growth, however, does raise questions regarding:
where we source our raw materials from and the potential health risks to workers in those countries
the significant amounts of water required for many large-scale Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) systems.
The production of Solar photovoltaic cells does utilise toxic materials and may produce harmful byproducts, so our only means of mitigating the risk is by ensuring we only source from manufacturers that adhere to Australian standards. Sounds easy, but, as we've found with the textile and technology industries in general, it is difficult to monitor industry-wide compliance in another country.
The next big issue (given that we are operating in one of driest environments on the planet) is the amount of water required for large scale solar production. It turns out that CST systems (although potentially the most efficient choice, with low health impacts) require as much water as some fossil fuel systems. Since the TAI study was published there have been improvements in technology that may reduce the amount required so it looks like there has been some progress on this, and nobody could have predicted the growth in smaller scale distributed systems and energy storage at the local level. The technology is moving fast and domestic and small businesses have been major beneficiaries of the advances in battery capacity.
It is worth considering these impacts as we move forward, however we must put this into context with the huge impacts of fossil fuel power generation, not least of which is the rise in the domestic price of gas, the (relative) reduction in coal use globally (affecting exports), the local pollution associated with mining and coal-fired power stations and the potentially devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change.