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Environmentalists are rarely shy about tarring the fossil-fuel sectors with a broad brush. Shorebirds soaked in oil, forests denuded by acid rain and herd migrations rerouted by pipelines all provide ample - and photogenic - opportunities to indict conventional energy companies with charges of wantonly plundering our fragile planet in the name of profits.

Their rejoinder is that the world economy essentially depends on fossil fuels and that some environmental damage, while regrettable, is unavoidable. There is a calculus that the benefits provided by fossil fuels outweigh the cost, although it is increasingly difficult to establish what the losses really are. Some would call this a grim calculus. Others would call this a reality-based position.

Until relatively recently, the solar sector has been able to tread the ground of environmental stewardship with its head held high. Certainly, such imagery as a solar array under a clear sky surrounded by sunflowers is brandished by solar power enthusiasts. Go ahead and Google “solar array, sunflowers.”

This changed recently because of several high-profile issues involving the toxicity of certain materials used in the photovoltaic manufacturing process and the impact of solar power facilities on wildlife and habitats.

The toxicity issue could have been foreseen because the harmful effects of hazardous materials on the environment has been well documented in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. It’s no secret that PV manufacturing shares many of the same materials and processes. Several newsworthy spills have made the point.

Effects on habitats are more of a mixed bag. The impact of large-scale solar development on the desert tortoise in the Southwest U.S. is the same story as any endangered or threatened species confronted by new construction on pristine land. However, the killing of birds by concentrating solar power plants through the flux effect and the alleged fatal decoying of birds by desert PV arrays through the “lake effect” were more or less unforeseen.

Fortunately, the solar sector has shown itself to be highly responsive to environmentally minded critics. On the toxics front, industry watchdogs, such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, report that some manufacturers have taken action to clean up their operations. In Europe, the PV Cycle organization is providing a model for the world for end-of-life PV waste recovery.

The wildlife issue is dicier. Federal rules for how many birds of a particular species a solar developer is allowed to “take” are currently under consideration in the U.S. Solar power stations are almost certainly less environmentally damaging than fossil fuel ones. But that’s a calculus, too.

“Do no harm” is an impossible standard to live up to when it comes to infrastructure and energy production. “Think things through” might be a better one. Renewable, green and clean energy could not be so without a lot of forethought, planning and effort. Pretending they are by nature will not make them so. S

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