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  • Asian solar power growth could increase lead poisoning

[NEW DELHI] Plans for China and India to generate more solar power may increase lead pollution, according to a study published last week (31 August).

The move could release more than 2.4 million tons of lead pollution in China and India, according to the analysis of government plans by researchers at the University of Tennessee, United States. This is because off-grid solar power in both countries uses lead–acid batteries for storing energy.

The team also found that both countries have large amounts of lead leak into the environment — 33 per cent in China and 22 per cent in India — from the total amount mined, smelted, used in battery manufacturing, and recycled. Their findings were published in the journal Energy Policy.

India plans to add 12 gigawatts of solar power by 2022, including the distribution of 20 million solar lanterns. It aims to provide renewable energy to 80,000 villages outside the power grid — 25 per cent of which are unsuitable for grid connection — so it will depend on lead batteries, the authors said.

The low efficiency of India's battery production, lead mining and recycling industries means that the amount of lead leaked into the environment is likely to be high. Based on emissions from new battery-producing units in India and China, the authors estimated that lead emissions will equate to one-third of the world's total lead production.

They attributed the high emissions to inadequate regulation of environmental standards. "Lead pollution control is relatively new in the regulatory space so there aren't legacy standards or 'norms' that the countries adhere to," said Chris Cherry, one of the authors.

Subhes Bhattacharyya, who studies renewable-energy systems in developing countries at the University of Dundee, United Kingdom, agreed but said the problem mainly arises from the disposal of batteries.

"In Europe, the supplier of the battery is responsible for its final disposal, even if it has been used by others. There is no mechanism for [the] implementation of such regulations in India and China, and the penalty for non-compliance is very weak," he said.

Government representatives insisted that India's solar plans focused on grid-based solar power, where lead batteries are not necessary.

"I do not think the study considered India's focus on grid-based solar power. Moreover, lead batteries used in solar power constitute less than one per cent of lead batteries used in India. So it [is] unfair to blame solar power for lead pollution," said Bharat Bhargava, director of solar photovoltaics at India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

But Bhattacharya said that a grid-connected system is unlikely to be developed soon. "The issue of [lead] batteries arises in the case of small solar [power] systems being used widely when the grid fails to supply or where there is no grid. The number of such systems runs into millions and here the battery issue is more critical."

Link to abstract in Energy Policy

References

Energy Policy doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.06.021 (2011)

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