Much like the nagging sustainability issues that are plaguing biofuel production, making solar panels has a dark undercurrent as well. This weekend the Washington Post published an investigative piece looking into Chinese polysilicon manufacturing companies accused of dumping a toxic byproduct, silicon tetrachloride, into local villages. Polysilicon is the main ingredient in solar panel production and strong demand has led to a boom of low-cost manufacturers in China, which seem to be cutting eco-corners to bring down costs and fill their coffers.
In particular the Washington Post piece points to Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., a polysilicon maker that supplies billionaire Shi Zhengrong’s solar panel manufacturing company, Suntech Power Holdings. Using interviews with local villagers, environmentalists, and the company itself, as well as a soil sample analysis, the article makes a good case that the polysilicon maker is dumping the toxic substance and villagers are suffering health consequences.
But even worse, it seems to be a trend in the industry. The article calls the more than 20 Chinese polysilicon manufacturers “the new dotcoms,” and points out the massive savings these companies can make by not spending on the proper recycling and disposal methods.
While all industries are plagued by companies neglecting environmental practices, companies that create clean energy products are expected to keep their noses clean. The media has a field day when they don’t. But as we’ve learned via the unsustainable nature of corn-based ethanol, companies making green products can fall just as short of having green practices as traditional industry does.
And green industries that go through an abrupt boom are particularly susceptible. The current high demand for polysilicon for solar panels and the profit margins that Chinese manufacturers can get by cutting costs are just too tantalizing. The Washington Post crunches those numbers:
- The price of polysilicon soared from $20 per kilogram to $300 per kilogram over the past five years.
- If environmental protection technology is used, the cost to produce one ton of polysilicon is approximately $84,500. But Chinese companies are making it at $21,000 to $56,000 a ton.
- The combined capacity of China’s new polysilicon factories is estimated at 80,000 to 100,000 tons — more than double the 40,000 tons produced in the entire world today.
- Many of the residents of the village where Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. is dumping make $200 a year.