Solar's Dirty Side is Being Ignored, Report Says

Solar power may produce electricity without burning fossil fuels, but it brings its own set of environmental bad news: toxic chemicals in solar panels and solar manufacturing processes. And many of the environmental risks associated with production and end-of-life are being ignored by solar panel producers and lawmakers, according to a new report out today from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

The 45-page report, entitled “Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry,” notes that, to solve the problem, panel manufacturers need to adopt “extended producer responsibility,” including take-back programs and environmental best practices now, while the solar industry is still in a nascent stage. As we’ve pointed out before, reclamation programs are a low priority for solar startups that are typically focused more on raising capital and building production, and many of those that do exist are in the pilot phase. Sheila Davis, executive director of the SVTC, tells us that panel makers “should look at this as an opportunity, not an economic hindrance.”

As a practical matter, solar panel makers could see cost benefits from reclaiming discarded panels; some of the materials used to make them — such as telluride and indium — are quite rare (and expensive). Some forward-thinking solar panel makers, such as AVA Solar and First Solar, have developed take-back programs where they set aside a certain amount of money from each panel sale to build up a reclamation fund.

Davis says the experience of the consumer electronics industry should help solar manufacturers understand the need to develop take-back programs early on. Solar panels carry some of the same e-waste issues as other discarded electronic devices, such as computers and video monitors, but the consumer electronics industry had to go back and develop costly programs to retrieve and recycle old products after their hazards became known, explains Davis. The solar industry should use the lesson to develop those best practices now. “There’s a tremendous opportunity here,” Davis says, “There aren’t that many solar panels coming to end of life, so they actually have an opportunity to set up recycling systems.”

Beyond urging the solar industry to adopt a sustainability ethic now, the report hopes public policy will support that effort. President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a proposal to invest $15 billion in renewable energy projects and some of that money should go toward promoting sustainable solar technology, says David Levine, principal of the company Green Harvest Technologies, which promotes the development of eco-friendly products and is an adviser to the SVTC report. He says federal subsidies should support true green energy instead of polluting clean energy.

The report also itemizes the environmental hazards associated with various chemicals used to make PV cells, as well as the risks they pose to solar workers, the hazardous waste byproducts and the potential risks of disposal at the end of a panel’s typical 20-25 year life span.

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