Solar cells may generate clean green electricity but manufacturing them involves a witches brew of toxic chemicals that could harm the environment if millions of solar panels end up in landfills, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
The California environmental group is calling for solar manufacturers to take back and recycle their panels at the end of their 20-to-25 year lifespan. “We feel it’s a very important time for the solar industry because it is getting ready to take off and before that happens it’s time to look at important issues around designing out some of the toxics,” Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition executive director Sheila Davis told Green Wombat. “The big issue is whether there is a transparent supply chain and whether solar companies monitor their supply chains.”
The solar industry’s trade group says it embraces the report’s recommendations. “We completely support take-back and recycling,” says Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. “We’re in a fortunate position in that we’re still an emerging industry and have an opportunity now to establish standards and proactively set up processes before we end up with solar panels on every rooftop.”
Julie Blunden, vice president of public policy at San Jose solar cell maker SunPower, points out that an industry-backed group called PV Cycle in Europe is developing worldwide standards for the take-back and recycling of solar panels. “It’s not uncharted territory for the solar industry – we have actually been working on it for a while,” she says. “The idea is for industry to design something that makes sense for a global value chain and a global market.”
The toxics coalition was born in the early 1980s after chip plants were found to be contaminating groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals, setting off years of litigation and turning Silicon Valley into a Superfund hot spot. In more recent years, the toxics coalition has pressed computer manufacturers to take back and recycle PCs and reduce the use of toxic materials that often ended up discarded in Third World countries.
Silicon is the key material used in both semiconductors and conventional solar cells and its production and refinement involve various toxic chemicals.
“Although the solar PV boom is still in its early stages, disturbing global trends are beginning to emerge,” the report states. “For example, much of the polysilicon feedstock material (the highly refined silicon used as the basic material for crystalline silicon PV cells) is produced in countries like China, where manufacturing costs and environmental regulatory enforcement are low.”
But unlike computer makers in the 1980s and ’90s, solar companies like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and Sharp are not about to resist efforts to green up their business. “The people working for these companies are completely committed to preserving the environment and it drives the reason for being in solar,” notes Hanis.
And recycling solar panels can be good for business. When Green Wombat visited SolarWorld’s new solar cell factory in Oregon in October, COO Boris Klebensberger touted the German company’s recycling program as a competitive advantage, both with customers and as a way to reduce manufacturing costs by recovering expensive polysilicon.
For instance, thin-film solar manufacturer First Solar (FSLR), whose cells are made from cadmium telluride, pre-funds the cost of its take-back program through an insurance program so customers are assured that the panels they buy will be properly disposed of at the end of their lifespan. That addresses a particular challenge the solar industry faces: Will the company that makes a particular solar panel be around a quarter century later to take back and recycle its products? And if not, who takes responsibility for doing so?
Davis says the toxics coalition has approached some solar companies but declined to identify them. “We haven’t talked to a lot of them but the ones we have talked to have been responsive,” she says. “I think that’s because most people in these companies do have an interest in being green. They’re much more receptive to looking at models that would promote their environmental performance.”
Beyond corporate self-interest, government policy considerations are likely to drive the solar industry to devise alternative manufacturing processes and implement recycling programs. For instance, European Union restrictions on various toxic materials in electronic products have encouraged computer makers to green their machines lest they be shut out of a major market. And these days, Dell (DELL) and even Apple (AAPL) see a marketing advantage to touting environmentally friendly computing.
The solar industry has time on its side when it comes to developing toxic reduction and recycling programs. While an iPod may end up on the trash heap in 18 months, the typical solar panel won’t come off the roof for decades.