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Solar panels bad for global warming?

Just when you thought putting up solar panels was the right way to reduce your carbon footprint and curb climate change, along comes research that turns your good deed into cause for feeling guilt.

The disturbing news arrives courtesy of a study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego.

The problem lies with NF3, or nitrogen trifluoride. You couldn’t find that gas in the atmosphere much just a few years ago, but now its concentrations are rising by 11 percent a year. Worst yet, it’s 17,000 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (and lasts five times longer).

And where does nitrogen trifluoride come from? From the manufacture of flat-screen television sets, computer displays, microcircuitry and … thin-film photovoltaic cells.

The Scripps researchers found that, in 2006, there was far more NF3 in the air — three and a half times as much — than originally believed. This year, they measured 5,400 metric tons of the stuff in the atmosphere, and the levels continue to go up.

“I’d say case closed,” said Michael Prather, a University of California atmospheric chemist who was not involved with the study. “It is now shown to be an important greenhouse gas. Now we need to get hard numbers on how much is flowing through the system, from production to disposal.”

Out with the solar panels, in with … draft animals for energy? No, wait: livestock are also a major source of greenhouse gases. Sigh. Human power, anybody?

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