Everybody loves solar, the shiny superstar of renewable energy.
But scratch the surface of the manufacturing process and the green sheen disappears. Vast amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce and transport panels. Solar cells contain toxic materials. Some components can't be easily recycled.
That has some environmentalists worried about a new tidal wave of hazardous waste headed for the nation's landfills when panels eventually wear out. You can't just call your product green and close your eyes to what's happening in the supply chain. The solar energy industry is running into some of the same problems that have been seen in the electronics industry, whose waste is polluting U.S. landfills and contaminating groundwater with harmful substances such as mercury and chromium.
Solar energy supplies less than 1% of the nation's electricity at present. But the technology is poised for explosive growth. Much of the world's production is centered in Asia, but there are some disturbing trends emerging there. China is major producer of polycrystalline silicon, a key component of solar cells. The Washington Post last year documented how at least one Chinese producer was dumping a toxic byproduct from that manufacturing process on nearby farmland. Experts suspect that firms in other developing countries are taking similar shortcuts.
Davis said developing benign substitutes for some of the most dangerous materials was essential for the solar industry to be truly sustainable. Making the panels is just the beginning. Planning needs to begin now on what to do with millions of these heavy modules as they wear out in 20 to 25 years or are replaced with better technology, environmentalists say.
The high-tech industry generated more than 2.6 million tons of e-waste in the U.S. in 2005, about 87% of which ends up in landfills or incinerators. Most of the rest was exported to developing countries to be dismantled by low-wage workers, many of whom are exposed to dangerous substances lurking in the guts of personal computers and other electronics.
Solar can not go down that path. State and national governments need to consider legislation to keep cleanup costs from falling to taxpayers. Thinking about recycling of the panels in the future needs to be part of the upfront design and manufacturing process.
Source: 1/14/09, Los Angeles Times, by Marla Dickerson.