Solar panel

Solar panel "trees" are one stage in the evolution of solar power.
Photo © lzf \ Fotolia.com

Sometime during the next 100 years or so, the world is going to run out of platinum. If we haven’t found a replacement, production of new jewelry, electrodes, anticancer drugs and turbine engines will all grind to a halt. Also coming to a screeching stop will be production of solar panel cells, which rely on the rare metal as an efficient electrocatalyst.

By some definitions, that impending shortage means solar power is unsustainable. Such a thought makes environmentalists uncomfortable; renewable energies are supposed to represent everything that fossil fuels are not. They should use no resources, kill no wildlife and last until the sun explodes. We shouldn’t have to innovate. Yet new technologies require the room to grow and evolve. Innovation is inherent and essential to the process of bringing a new technology into the world, so why all the panic?

Energy innovation is what got us into this mess, as the story goes.

There we were, happily rolling around in the mud of the 18th century, when some jerk invented the steam engine – before we knew it we were waist deep in combustion engines, concrete structures and smartphones, with no regard for the finite nature of the Earth’s resources.

Inevitably, climate change arrived to punish us for our technological sins. Recognizing the error of our ways, we rejected the finite energies that brought us to this dark place and embraced renewable energy as the redeemer of our industrial hubris.

The problem with this narrative is twofold:

  1. It doesn’t provide us with any flexibility. Climate change becomes an ethical problem (as opposed to logistical or scientific), and there is no room for compromise on our solutions without compromising our ethics as well.
  2. It allows climate change deniers to revel in the imperfections of renewable energies, claiming that our solutions are no better than what we’ve left behind.

The reality is that no technology is perfect, but there’s a big drop from mild imperfection to emitting hundreds of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s a level of nuance with which we need to be comfortable if renewables are going to have the future we intend for them.

Solar power has dealt with accusations of unsustainability before. In 2009, energy analysts were concerned about global reserves of silicon, despite the fact that silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust.

Now platinum has been shockingly revealed to be finite by nature. No new technology has ever kept its original form once it hit the mainstream. Solar power is unlikely to be the exception. There’s a sense within the environmental community that renewables are held to a higher standard than other forms of energy. The public often expresses shock that solar panels have a limited lifespan, or that windmills require regular maintenance; hasn’t the energy revolution put such boorish imperfections behind us?

Technological hyperbole exists on either end of the climate change debate. Either technology will save us and there’s no need for new perspectives, or else technology brought this problem upon us and can’t be relied upon at all to get us out. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle: we need to rely, to an extent, on the likelihood of technological advances. Renewable energy does not need to be the diametric opposite of fossil fuels in order to be A) sustainable and B) a much better solution.

Indeed, in the time it took for the energy world to get worked up over the impending decline of platinum reserves, a potential replacement has already been found, in the form of 3D graphene. Meanwhile, advances in perovskite solar cells could by-pass the problem entirely, using cheaper, more efficient, materials.

Through no fault of its own, renewable energy was born with the pressure to be perfect, to be everything that fossil fuels were not. Any other form of energy would be given the space to innovate and change shape as we work through the kinks that accompany all new technologies. The fuss over the impending platinum shortage has a great deal to do with our expectations of renewable energy and not very much at all to do with the solar industry’s actual risk of collapse.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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