rain on the first panel - h080, (cc By Sa 2.0)

The Toxic Issue of Solar Panels

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PMLast year Robert Lundahl and I co-wrote an article about a California PV solar factory that is not disposing of their solar panels once their lifespan expires. We could not name the company, as our source still works there, but they use a known carcinogenic called gallium arsenide. This is not believed to be a problem as long as the panels are intact. However if they end up in a landfill the panels will be broken and the toxins can leech into the soil. Environment California recently directed me to a study that puts this problem in context and suggests areas where the industry can improve.

Amy Galland’s “Clean and Green” was inspired by companies that are not complying with environmental health and safety codes, but she found PV manufacturers actually do more than what is required.

Some beat standards set for emissions, have excellent procedural methods and reduce waste by recycling materials. Suntech’s panels, for example, (p 17) are 100% recyclable because 85% of the components are recycled materials. (p 18) Both Abound Solar and First Solar claim and recycle their semiconductor materials at-end of life. SolarWorld established a joint venture, SolarCycle, that deals with recycled solar materials.

Another article I’m researching deals with a company whose panels are exceeding their expected performance. A recent Kyocera news release cites tests proving that 10 year old modules still retain 95% of their original capacity. An installation made 30 years still has 90.4% capacity! As a result of these tests, Kyocera now guarantees that their solar panels will retain 80% capacity for 25 years.

Galland devoted a large portion of her study to correctly handling solar panels, from the manufacturing stage to final disposal. She suggested (19) the ends of some panels should be encapsulated, for added protection and longer life.

One of the carcinogenic’s she identified was cadmium (CdTe). More than 63% of the CdTe found in our bodies is attributed to the fertilizers used for plants, never-the-less it is also in solar panels. Solar companies need to protect their workers during the manufacturing stage and used panels need to be handled properly. (p 23) Galland notes that First Solar recycles up to 95% of the CdTe from used panels.

She did not go into detail about gallium arsenide other than to say (pps 45) it is only used in small quantities on satellites and concentrated solar power systems due to the expense.

Though Galland’s study provides an excellent overview of industry practises and suggestions as to how they could improve, it does not resolve the problem  of ensuring that solar panels are treated properly after their lifespan expires. Some companies do not appear to be complying with environmental health and safety codes. The toxins from some solar panels are leeching into the soil at landfills. What are we going to do about this?

Galland does provide a perspective of this problem compared with fossil industries:

“In examining the challenges facing the solar industry it is important to keep in perspective the relative human and environmental impacts of different types of electricity generation. Even though there are toxic compounds used in the manufacturing of most solar panels, the generation of electricity from solar energy is significantly safer to the environment and workers than production of electricity from coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission. For example, once a solar panel is installed, it generates electricity with zero emissions whereas in 2010, coal-fired power plants in the United States emitted 1,999.6 million tons of carbon dioxide and there were 13,200 deaths in the U.S. directly attributable to particulates from coal-fired power plants.”

(Image above: rain on the first panel – h080, (cc By Sa 2.0)

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