A recent discovery might be throwing a shadow on the idealized vision of solar energy as completely sustainable.

Yes, solar energy is clean. But the materials solar panels are made of are, in some cases, toxic or rare to find. Scientists have found massive amounts of tellurium in one particular type of modern solar technology – cadmium telluride-based solar cells. The deposit of the rare metal is at the bottom of the sea, in an undisturbed part of the ocean. Cadium, on the other hand, is toxic. And this specific technology happens to be the first thin-film technology the goes out of the laboratory to enter mass production. It better absorbs light than silicon, on which most solar power is currently based. It’s cheap and quick to set up. It uses less material, but it also uses one of the rarest metals in the Earth’s crust.

Some argue no one is actively searching for new deposits. This might be true. And a recent discovery of a new deposit in an underwater mountain in the Atlantic Ocean seems to support this theory. However, besides being technically challenging to extract, the environmental costs of underwater mining are enormous.

This case raises many questions, as the author of the article below points out. The sustainable energy industry is growing to eventually supplant fossil fuels, but do all the alternative energy technologies also have a requirement to be environmentally ethical? It looks like no technology is perfect. The question is when we weigh the risks and benefits, which is to tilt the scales.

We want a source of energy that will wipe out our carbon emissions and help curb global warming. Solar energy fits the description. But it might include making a compromise with the environment by allowing eco-systems devastating mining. It is not comparable to the impact of fossil fuel mining. Cadmium telluride modules, for example, include a cost to cover recycling and scarce resources such as tellurium can be recovered from panels at the end of their 20-year or more lifespan (compare this with fossil fuels that turn into flames and harmful byproducts).

Maybe we need to put up with a better, not a perfect energy alternative. Or maybe to just keep searching.

Solar power: Do the ends justify the means?

Scientists have just discovered massive amounts of a rare metal called tellurium, a key element in cutting-edge solar technology.

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