Jan 19, 2009

Science Scene: Solar - is there a toxic downside?

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.


  1. Great post. What on the surface would seem to be a logical and simple solution to at least part of our energy problems has many hidden dangers. Our efforts to develop better and more efficient technology must address these concerns. A quick fix will not help the future of our planet.

  2. This is something that is not thought about by the majority of the American public & seemingly the Washington politicians. Anytime any alternative energy source is used, the byproducts must also be considered.

    Thanks for sharing!


  3. scary to think of the health hazzards to the drinking water and people who have to deal with all this waste.
    No easy answers. Our planet must be protected at all cost so that our future children have a place to live and play.

  4. I just saw 'solar panels' on that how it's made show. i was shocked to see that they require similar chemical processes to that of circuit boards (if i understood it right). wind power seems to me a more viable alternative which can run 24-7 in all climates.


  5. This is an eye opening post for me. Like many people, I had just focused on the notion that solar panels were a green power source. Thank you for this informative post.

  6. I didn't realize something thought to be an answer could in the end be just as destructive. I truly do hope they find a way to recycle these solar panels, an environmentally safe way that is. (Hugs)Indigo

  7. i THINK i saw a 60 Minutes on this topic, showing Chinese farmers with lots of cancer and such. I freecycle the hell out of everything in my home to TRY to do a small small part. Nice entry. i had NO idea about any of this.


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