Solar’s Dirty Little Secret

"Green" solar panels can have their dirty side interms of disposal and manufacturing.  And what happens to the millionsof solar panels planted in solar farms and installed on roofs oncethey’ve reached the end of their useful life in 20 or 25 years?

You might recall the outcry in 2008 when the Washington Postreported on the alleged dumping of silicon tetrachloride, a toxicbyproduct of polysilicon production on farmland in China.  Laxenvironmental enforcement and the drive to save money on expensiverecycling and treatment drove the polysilicon supplier to thisirresponsible act.    

The SiliconValley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) has called on the solar industry toadopt environmentally friendly measures for manufacturing and disposingof solar panels. Sheila Davis, executive director of the non-profitSVTC, believes that solar companies should start investing in recyclingefforts now rather than waiting for their products to clog up landfillsbefore taking action.

"It’s an excellent time to do this considering that solar is anemerging industry," said Davis. "It will be an environmental advantageif you have panels that not only contribute to sustainability and reduce carbon emissions, but also use renewable and sustainable materials."  

To encourage solar manufacturers to do the right thing, SVTC just released its 2010 Solar Company Scorecard, which ranks manufacturers of PV modulesaccording to environmental health and safety, sustainability, workers’rights, and social justice. The responding companies self-reported onthese areas and the results can serve as a resource for institutionalpurchasers, investors and consumers.   SVTC is funded by individuals and foundations. The scorecard was funded by HendersonGlobal and Boston Common.  
“Solar power is key tohelping solve the world’s climate crisis,” offered Davis. “But theindustry still faces serious issues that need to be addressed before itcan be considered truly ‘clean and green’ and socially just.”

Fourteen companies representing 24 percent of the 2008 module marketshare and 31 percent of the cumulative market share responded to theinquiry. The top three scores were earned by German manufacturersCalyxo, SolarWorld and Sovello, which scored 90, 88 and 73 respectively. (Calyxo and Sovello, both funded by Q-Cells, likely have larger problems to worry about).

Two U.S.-based cadmium telluride manufacturers responded and scoredin the mid-range: First Solar in Arizona received a score of 67 andColorado-based startup Abound received a 63. 
What reallyneeds to occur to drive a recycling culture is the adoption of atakeback program by every solar module manufacturer.  Firms can go italone like First Solar or they can get together, as in the PV Cycle Association, which is developing a voluntary solar panel recycling program inEurope. 

SVTC is calling for mandatory takeback and responsiblerecycling by solar companies as a step toward reducing the solarindustry’s environmental footprint.  Larger institutional customers andcity or school districts can drive this process by insisting that therebe takeback programs as well.

In Davis’ words, "That’s why wecreated the scorecard — to see which makers are taking the panelsback."

First Solar (FSLR), the largest maker of cadmium telluride solarpanels, runs a recycling program and explains what it does with unwanted panels here.  There is a toxicity risk associated withcadmium telluride that First Solar has confronted with a 100 percenttakeback program bonded by Swiss Re in the event that First Solar is not around in 20 to 30 years. 

The SVTC got started more than 25 years ago in response to watercontamination caused by the semiconductor industry.  Their focus hasbeen on electronics, but the rapid growth of the solar PV industry hasspurred them into getting an early start on working with the solar panel manufacturers, and to avoid the late start that the semiconductorindustry had. "We don’t want that to happen in the solar industry," said Davis.

She added, "The waste stream is going to diversify andmanufacturers need to be prepared."



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