Utne Blogs > Environment

The Hidden Cost of Solar Panels

by Chelsey Perkins 

Tags: Environment, global warming, nitrogen trifluoride, solar panels, greenhouse gas, emissions, Earth Island Journal,

Solar Panels ArtisticSolar panels are a powerful symbol of the future of energy production, and global demand for them is expected to increase in 2009. In a recent study, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that a man-made gas used to manufacture the thin-film photovoltaic cells that capture sunlight is more prevalent—and more powerful—in the atmosphere than previously thought.

Nitrogen trifluoride, which is also used in the production of flat-screen televisions and microcircuits, is 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, reports Earth Island Journal (article not available online). About 16 percent of the gas used in producing these items escapes into the atmosphere. Although nitrogen trifluoride accounts for only a very small portion of overall greenhouse gas emissions, as more people look to solar panels as a viable alternative to coal-powered electricity—ironically, to reduce their ecological footprint—the gas in the atmosphere is likely to increase as well. The study estimates the increase to be around 11 percent each year.

Researchers who conducted the study hope to more thoroughly study the information technology industry’s impact on global warming, which is already estimated to be equal to the aviation industry’s.

Image by Tiggs07, licensed under Creative Commons.