A popular 80-kilometer solar panel array along 42nd Street in Nebraska has been destroyed by massive hail stones. The array, which was composed of 95% Chinese–made solar panels, was declared “significantly damaged” by the Nebraska Public Power District.
The array’s destruction has caused turmoil among proponents of renewable energy, who saw it as a symbol of the success of solar power. However, renewable energy experts have raised numerous serious issues with solar panel arrays and other solar energy products.
Statistics from the International Energy Agency show that China produces 80% of the world’s solar panels, using questionable labor practices that have caused alarm in other countries. Additionally, 95% of the polysilicon wafers used in solar panel production come from China.
Beyond the controversial labor practices, experts have also raised questions about the environmental impacts of solar panels. In particular, solar panel production releases dangerous amounts of nitrogen trifluoride into the atmosphere, making it around 17,000 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
In addition, solar panel production requires large amounts of silicon, which is only partially recovered in the process. Furthermore, the toxic chemicals used in solar panel production (e.g. cadmium telluride, cadmium gallium, and copper indium selenide) can be damaging to human health if not properly handled.
Although the cause of the array’s destruction is still being investigated, some climate experts are blaming climate change for the hail storm that caused the damage. However, this has been met with skepticism from the local population, as hail storms are not uncommon in the region.
Still, the array’s destruction has sent shockwaves through the renewable energy world, raising questions about the longevity and sustainability of solar power. It remains to be seen whether the array will be rebuilt, and whether its destruction will spur new investment in renewable energy production and research.
For now, the pristine view of mountains in the Shanxi Province of China remains covered with a blanket of solar panels, a physical indication of the world’s reliance on China for renewable energy solutions. Whether these panels and future solar arrays can survive threats like hail storms is unknown.