The Dark Side of Solar Energy

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Ed. note: With all the talk lately of solar panels being Earth’s salvation, especially at the G20 summit and China in particular, it seemed only appropriate to re-post the following article. Below is an excerpt from Sunburned: Solar’s Dirty Little Secrets from the May 2009 issue of Mac|Life.

Solar-powered gadgets have become de rigueur in our attempts at shrinking our carbon footprint. And utilizing the power of the sun is the one bright shining beacon of the alternative-energy movement. But there is a dark side to solar energy.

Materials used in solar panels are toxic.
Because solar is the hip, happening alt-energy trend du jour, the number of photovoltaic cells produced globally has increased dramatically in the past few years. But unfortunately, many of the solar panels manufactured today are made with cadmium, a highly toxic carcinogen that can cumulate in plant, animal, and human tissues. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has recently published a 45-page report, “Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry,” claiming that many of the environmental risks associated with the production and disposal of solar panels are not currently being addressed by the industry.

And because solar panels have a shelf life of 20 to 30 years, the Coalition claims that the panels have the potential of creating the next wave of hazardous e-waste when they “die.” What to do? Clearly, as the solar industry grows, environmentalists and consumers must demand that manufacturers develop systems to ensure that solar panels are recycled and their hazardous toxins kept out of our ecosystem.

China is dumping hazardous waste from solar factories in fields.
According to the Washington Post, in the race to cash in on the world’s demand for solar products, China been leading the charge in producing polysilicon, a key component in sunlight-capturing wafers. Unfortunately, China is not enforcing environmental regulations, and many of the new factories are dumping toxic silicon tetrachloride (a byproduct of polysilicon production) directly into nearby farmlands. (Just for perspective, 4 tons of this toxic byproduct is produced for every ton of polysilicon.) Because it is expensive and time-consuming to set up systems to recycle the hazardous materials, companies are instead dumping indiscriminately, and people close to these sites are complaining of illness, crop failures, acrid air, and dead fields. How to proceed? Alt-energy companies around the globe need to make sure the factories from which they acquire their solar components are practicing environmentally responsible manufacturing.

We use fossil fuels to make green energy.
Yes, solar power produces clean energy, but it requires utilizing our current resources to produce it. For the green movement to be truly sustainable, we need to make sure we are not trading one environmental problem for another. Yes, the world needs renewable energy as our fossil fuels dwindle, but we need to make sure we are not polluting and depleting to acquire and perfect the new technology.

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