British Columbia

Booming solar energy demand raising ecological concerns

B.C. needs to focus on environmentally responsible mining of the metals needed to make solar panels, according to a new report.

Metals needed to build solar panels need to be mined responsibly, expert says

Clean, renewable energy advocates look to solar panels as our future. But the metals needed to make them, come from mining — often at a high environmental cost. (CBC)

It is widely held by scientists that solar technology is key in building a clean, renewable energy infrastructure — but the environmental damage caused by mining the metals needed to produce solar panels creates an ecological conundrum.

Now a new report from Simon Fraser University says Canada, and B.C. in particular, need to focus on environmentally responsible mining while acquiring the metals instrumental to the production of solar panels.

"Canada is home to 14 of the 19 metals and minerals that go into making a solar panel," said Dan Woynillowicz, the policy director at Clean Energy Canada and co-author of the SFU report.

"When we looked across the country at both existing and exploration projects for some of these metals ... B.C. is the most active player today," said Woynillowicz on The Early Edition.

The demand for solar power is expected to grow drastically as solar photovoltaic systems become the planet's cheapest source of energy.

And as that demand grows, so will Canada's mining industry and potentially B.C.'s economy, he said.

The rise of solar power

The SFU report details how 2016 was a record-breaking year in the amount of energy produced by solar power, with 73 gigawatts of new capacity coming online.

The report also outlines how the falling cost of solar panels has caused solar power to be the leading source of new energy worldwide. 

Woynillowicz says that as B.C.'s mining industry grows to meet this new demand, it needs to limit its fuel emissions, chemical use and damage to nearby water sources while harvesting the sought after materials.

"The question for Canadians is: can we actually put in place regulations, and the practices by mining companies, to capitalize on this as an opportunity to create growth?" said Woynillowicz. "I think that's the challenge for our policymakers and our mining companies."

To hear the full interview with Dan Woynillowicz, click on the audio link below:

The report builds upon previous research conducted by Environment Canada that explored the environmental impact of all electricity producing industries. That research found even with the damage caused by mining, solar power is still the least impacting form of electricity generation.

Despite the concerns raised, Woynillowicz is optimistic Canadian mining communities can be revitalized and sustained by the increased demand for solar panel building metals.

With files from The Early Edition.

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