Solar Panel Toxic Manufacturing Byproducts, Product Disposal Needs Greater Oversight, Report Urges

solar panels photo

Sure, they generate clean electricity, but what about how they were made and disposed of? Photo: dirvish via flickr

Every TreeHugger worth their roots loves solar power. After the (not always low) upfront costs are paid back you get free power from the sun, without emitting greenhouse gases or supporting continued extraction of fossil fuels. What's not to like, right? Well, according to a new report released by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition at the manufacturing and disposal stage of those über-green solar panels' life there's a whole bunch not to like, and little oversight to boot. This is what report recommends be done to remedy the situation and why it need be done in the first place: Little Oversight Exists Currently
The report says that little attention is currently paid to the environmental and health costs of the rapidly expanding solar industry; that "most widely used solar PV panels are based on materials and processes from the microelectronics industry" which could cause an avalanche of e-waste at the end of their productive lifetime of 20-25 years; and that many of the newest panels with higher rates of efficiency use "extremely toxic materials with unknown health and environmental risks."

A further problem is that some panels are manufactured in countries with lax environmental policies, or at least enforcement of those policies. China is cited as an example:

In March 2008, the Washington Post reported that at least one plant in China's Henan province is regularly dumping extremely toxic silicon tetrachloride (a corrosive and toxic waste product of polysilicon manufacturing) on nearby farmland. [...] Silicon tetrachloride makes the soil too acidic for plants, causes severe irritation to living tissues, and is highly toxic when ingested of inhaled.

How To Create Sustainable Solar Panel Manufacturing
Because of all this the report recommends, in short, that the following policies should be adopted:
  • Reduce and eventually eliminate the use of toxic materials and develop environmentally sustainable practices
  • Ensure that solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the lifecycle impacts of their products through Extended Producer Responsibility
  • Ensure proper testing of new and emerging materials based on a precautionary approach
  • Expand recycling technology and design products for easy recycling
  • Promote high-quality 'green jobs' that protect worker health and safety and provide a living wage throughout the global PV industry
  • Protect community health and safety throughout the global PV industry, including supply chains and end-of-life recycling

Read the full report: Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry
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