Solar energy tantalizes most green-friendly consumers as an easy way to cut energy costs and consumption of fossil fuels, but a new report suggests the industry isn’t as clean as some thought.
Released last week by green technology watchdog Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the report details the toxic nature of photovoltaic cell production and proposes that solar vendors take back spent panels for clean recycling.
Over the past five years, the number of solar cells produced globally has increased sevenfold, according to the report, while in 2007 alone the industry grew by 62 percent, earning $17.2 billion in global revenues. Increased production allows a higher potential for toxic waste, if handled improperly.
Many materials used to produce photovoltaic (PV) panels, primarily silicon, are similar to those of the microelectronics industry and have the potential to create a wave of electronic waste after approximately 20 to 25 years of use, the coalition claims.
Other toxic PV cell components abound – lead, brominated flame retardants, cadmium and chromium – which require the safe recycling of small amounts of valuable but potentially dangerous material.
Particularly dangerous is the manufacturing of crystalline silicon PV cells from polysilicon feedstock (highly refined silicon), which produces the toxic waste product silicon tetrachloride.
When released into the environment, silicon tetrachloride acidifies soil so it is inhospitable for effective plant growth, causes severe irritation to living tissues and is highly toxic when ingested or inhaled.
With foresight to the potential risks of a growing solar industry, SVTC hopes that mistakes of the microelectronics industry will not be repeated.
“The electronics industry’s lack of environmental planning and oversight resulted in widespread toxic chemical pollution that caused death and injury to workers and people living in nearby communities,” the report said.
Though much of the toxic polysilicon manufacturing for PV cells and electronics takes place outside the U.S., American technology producers generated more than 2.6 million tons of electronic waste in 2005, according to EPA estimates.
Just 12.5 percent of the 2.6 million tons was collected for recycling.
Outside the European Union, recycling regulations for e-waste are few and far between.
“Unfortunately there are cost savings in not handling the toxic byproducts correctly and silicon is a commodity product,” said Marvin Hamon, vice president of the Northern California Solar Energy Association.
In March 2008, a controversial Washington Post article shed light on the ill-management of toxic byproducts in countries with burgeoning, unregulated technology industries. The article focused on one plant in China’s Henan province that regularly dumps silicon tetrachloride, a highly toxic byproduct of polysilicon manufacturing, on nearby farmland.
Still, there is no reason to think of solar as anything other than a valid sustainable energy source if the waste products are handled properly, Hamon said.
“While there are toxic byproducts produced during the manufacturing process, those byproducts can be either recycled or handled in a way that keeps them out of the environment,” he said.
For example, European Union-based electronics companies are required to take back used products, no federal legislation exists in the United States requiring similar Extended Producer Responsibility.
EPR, the report delineates, provides incentives for cleaner and more easily recyclable products, and discourages companies from making products which quickly become obsolete, often requiring manufacturers to pay outright for recycling.
As of January 2009 just 18 U.S. states have e-waste laws, of which California is the only state which does not have legislation pertaining to EPR, according to Electronics TakeBack Coalition data.
AARON BRUNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.