Solar Energy panel

Published on January 14th, 2009 | by Ariel Schwartz

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Danger: Solar Panels Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

January 14th, 2009 by  

panel

It’s easy to think that solar panels can do no wrong— after all, they will help lead us out of our energy crisis, right? Unfortunately, these shining beacons of hope produce toxic e-waste just like cell phones, TVs, and computers. A report released today by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition admonishes the solar industry to face its e-waste problem head on or risk “repeating the mistakes made by the microelectronics industry.”

The SVTC warns that solar panel production creates many of the same toxic byproducts as those found in semiconductor production, including silicon tetrachloride, dusts, and greenhouse gases like sulfur hexafluoride. These byproducts aren’t anything to scoff at— silicon tetrachloride, for example, makes land unsuitable for growing crops. And for each ton of polysilicon produced, four tons of silicon tetrachloride are generated.

There are steps that the solar industry can take to minimize toxic risks, however. The SVTC recommends that manufacturers test materials for toxicity before using them. Additionally, the group asks manufacturers to ramp up takeback programs.

But getting solar panel manufacturers to take back their products after 25 years (the average lifespan of silicon-based panels) could prove difficult, especially since other electronics manufacturers that make products with much shorter lifespans can’t get their takeback programs off the ground.

The only way manufacturers will aggressively pursue recycling and anti-toxicity campaigns is if we stop giving the solar industry a free pass and start demanding accountability.

Photo Credit: CC-licensed by flickr user David Boyle

 
 
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About the Author

was formerly the editor of CleanTechnica and is a senior editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine, and more. A graduate of Vassar College, she has previously worked in publishing, organic farming, documentary film, and newspaper journalism. Her interests include permaculture, hiking, skiing, music, relocalization, and cob (the building material). She currently resides in San Francisco, CA.



  • mariannar

    my inlaws got a solar heater for the water. i am electrosensitive, due to a mobile must i lived under for 4 years. even though i always slept well when in the countryside, this is the first night I cannot shut an eye. i figured something is wrong. i could think of the one thing that was new around, the solar heater. it has an electrical device pluged in, saying that measures water temperature. but then, why is it plugged in. i measured it just now. it shows infinite magnetic field, and my device measues till 19.99 microTesla. yes micfro, not nano. it is HUGE! health hazard! i always thought solar systems are green, but guess what, NO THEY ARE NOT! IT IS JUST ANOTHER GAME played with the ignorance of men :! and it is causing me insomnia just like a mobile communication must!

  • southern patriot

    I have always been a proponent of using solar energy, because I thought it would reduce our using other sources of energy. I have several question about the use of solar panels.Do they destroy the environment? Are they hazardous to the health of human’s. Is using solar energy safer to use, then say getting electricity from nuclear reactors?
    Where do most of the panels that we use in America, come from? What country are the majority of panel’s built in. Final question what percentage of energy in this country and then the world, is derived from the use of solar energy? If there is an updated sire I could visit I will? thanks SP

    • Bob_Wallace

      “Does the production of solar panels destroy the environment.”

      No, Obviously any manufacturing has some environmental impact. If we want electricity we are going to do some damage (mining, for example) but solar does far, far less damage than coal.

      “Are they hazardous to the health of human’s.”

      Np. There are dangerous chemicals involved in the manufacturing but those are used safely. China was creating problems with inappropriately dumping their chemical wastes but I think that problem has been fixed.

      “Is using solar energy safer to use then say getting electricity from nuclear reactors?”

      Yes. There is no way for solar panels to “melt down” and release harmful substances. There’s a zero probability of a solar Chernobyl or Fukushima. While solar panel manufacturing does produce some hazardous waste it is a miniscule danger compared to nuclear waste.

      “Where do most of the panels that we use in America, come from?”

      I can’t give you the numbers but I suspect most come from China. The second source may be the US, First Solar produces a lot of panels and they are a US located company. When the SolarCity plant opens then US sourcing will almost certainly be second.

      “What country are the majority of panel’s built in.”

      China. But panel manufacturing is opening in other countries. China’s very low cost labor advantage has disappeared plus panel plants are highly automated and have a very low labor requirement.

      “Final question what percentage of energy in this country and then the world, is derived from the use of solar energy?”

      We’re talking about a process that may take 30 years to get most of the fossil fuel off our grids. No one can predict what new technology might evolve over three decades. But if technology stays the same we’ve got a good idea of what might work best on a country by country basis and, for the US, state by state.

      http://thesolutionsproject.org/

      Hover over a country (or over a state on the second map) and you can see what proportion of solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc. would work best for that area based on resources in the country.

      Oh, wait. You were asking about present not potential. Currently the US gets just over 1% of its electricity from solar. Some sources state about 0.5% but they are talking about only what is generated at the utility level and not including end-user solar.

      Globally, solar is probably less than 1%. I don’t have a number.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Let me do a follow up on the current amount of solar in use.

        It’s very, very early in the history of solar utilization. Not the history of solar panels, we’ve had solar panels for over 50 years. But their price has made them too expensive for wide scale use. For many years panels were only used for outer space, remote situations where transporting fuel would have been too difficult, and research.

        A few years back Spain and Germany introduced programs which resulted in installing meaningful amounts of solar and started the industrial work needed to bring down the price.

        Following that solar panel prices have plummeted. It’s only in the very recent years that solar has started to emerge as a viable way to produce electricity.

        Let me give you graphs for solar electricity price, a graph of how new technologies emerge (start slow then accelerate), and how solar is growing in the US.

  • AJ

    Hi, I’m trying to do a research project for my school. I’m sadly looking for negative health effects that solar panels bring upon humans. I was curious if there has been any proof to solar panels causing radiation or cancerous cells? Even global warming if that is true?

    • Bob_Wallace

      I know of nothing.

      Some time back there were not adequate environmental controls at some Chinese manufacturing plants and hazardous chemicals used in the manufacturing process were simply tossed out. That was a significant problem. But it wasn’t caused by solar panels, rather than by poor manufacturing practices. I understand that is now fixed.

      Some people get concerned by the CdTe in some thin film panels. On their own cadmium and telluride can be nasty. But combined they are tightly bonded and it takes extreme heat to break the bond. A building fire would not be hot enough to separate them. The EPA has stated that the only way they would be dangerous would require grinding them into a fine powder and inhaling it.

      Aside from any manufacturing chemical exposure, which shouldn’t happen, there’s no known health risks from solar panels.

      Panels, directly, will not add to global warming. The sunlight/energy striking them is going to be turned into heat one way or another. By using the energy that hits a solar panel to generate electricity we can do something useful with the energy before it eventually become heat. (Electricity is going to be used to overcome friction when moving something. That will release heat. Or electricity will be used for resistive heating which turns electricity into heat.)

      ​The more of our electricity we get from solar panels the less we will get from coal and natural gas. The more we run our cars on electricity from solar panels the less gasoline and diesel we’ll burn. That means less greenhouse gas and less global warming.

      There are no known health risks for either solar panels or wind turbines.
      The US spends between $140 billion and $242 billion each year to cover the health problems created by coal. And billions more because of oil pollution. We spend nothing on wind and solar health problems simply because there are none.

      • southern patriot

        At the moment I’m reading your story line with interest. I too believe that solar can become part of our useful energy reserves. I’m not really wanting to believe that atomic energy is the safe way to go. I’m hearing from other sources that solar is hazardous to one’s health ? Would you mind sharing where your expertise comes from?

  • giveandtake

    Aren’t we trading effects on human life with Solar vs. our electric companies. One can eventually be as bad as another. It is new and has opened up lots of new businesses and has improved the stock market for the rich, but like everything there are side effects for anything we do. We do not hear about what Fukashima is doing to our ocean, our sea life and the air we breath or if it is effecting climate change, but no one talks about it.

  • kaysha

    does anyone know what svct stands for

    • Bob_Wallace

      Probably Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

  • khamis

    can solar-panel produce light that can kill human at a moment from the surface whe looking at it?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Fry you to a crisp.

      And wind turbines can turn your into a strawberry milkshake.

      You don’t want to know what geothermal plants can do to a person. It’s beyond belief….

  • Patricia Jarozynski
  • Sick in SoCal

    I have been sick and not sleeping since Solar installed on my house. I turned off the switch but now the company is fighting me about taking them off as we signed a contract. Any suggestions on how to go about fighting this big company

    • Bob_Wallace

      Rush to the grocery store.

      Purchase a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil.

      Fashion yourself a hat and wear it religiously.

    • Let’s be realistic. Most likely, you are causing yourself problems that you don’t need. Forget about the solar panels on your roof, and enjoy the lower electric bills that come with them. Don’t cause yourself unnecessary problems.

  • Jayicus

    umm, what about the fact that it results in UV radiation concentrated on your roof above where you sleep.. Plus the amount of dirty electricity they create.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Just make sure you wear your tinfoil stocking cap to bed.

      And since you’ll be laying down a pair of shiny jockey shorts might be a good idea.

      How did this POS article get posted? The “pollutants” during panel manufacturing are captured. The amount that gets into the atmosphere is insignificant.

      Now, burning coal….

  • Anonymous

    solar energy causing a rapid increase in global temperatures in addition to poisoning the earth.we can stop and go backwards or we can go forward on scientific ignorance and destroy the earth with the solar panels .and the department of energy and the epa departments.

    citizens of the world, it has been told to[by] doltish ignorant stupid nincompoops and global warming scientist that fossil fuels are causing global warming.so we should move to a more cleaner energy like solar energy.this push for green solar energy by the green freaks,and the global warming freaks and ignorant greedy scientist to push solar energy is responsible for the rapid increase in temperatures in the last 30years . the fact is for every action there is an equal reaction.for every solar panel the temperature is amplified an equal amount of the temperature the sun is reflecting.it is called the mirror effect. meaning that the earths temperatures will increase more rapidly by the increasing of solar panels . ie or eg if the temperature of the day is 90 degrees the solar panel will increase the earth temperature the same amount by the heat reflection off the solar panel.this effect is called the mirror effect. to test the mirror effect ,if you take a mirror and reflect the sun rays off the mirror on some one sitting in the shade that person will feel the heat from the sun off the reflection from the mirror.even though he is in the shade .this is the mirror effect 2×2 effect .so in the past 30 years solar energy have increased and so have the global temperatures of the solar panels mirror effects..the fact is people this solar energy will cause the global temperatures to increase more rapidly.folks if we have no co2 or hc we will all die so why are we paying these con men co2 and hc taxes and they cant do a f/n thing to fix the global warming .why? because the people are stupid and these global warming con men and scientist are getting rich of a hoax.from the ignorance of scared people. i say abolish the carbon taxes from all businesses or tax the solar panels for a worse direct increase of global temperatures.now which scientist or global warming freak want to prove this solar panel mirror effect.is worse than fossil fuel effect on the earth temperatures.in fact these solar panels are causing the rapid increase of the storms and floods and tornadoes .these solar panels are ignition for the co2 and the hc in the clouds.i rest my case.

    • Cara

      I thought most panels installed on the roofs of residences are made of dark, non-reflective material which absorbs light and heat … so how does the mirror-effect apply? I think the main problem is the manufacturing and disposal process which generates toxicity.

  • Ellie

    I’ve heard that solar panels are highly recyclable – almost 95% of the silicon crystalline panel can be recycled. Also, if computur silicon was recycled more frequently, this would lower the cost of solar panels, since the higher cost of solar panels usually results for competition with the IT silicon industry.

  • Ellie

    I’ve heard that solar panels are highly recyclable – almost 95% of the silicon crystalline panel can be recycled. Also, if computur silicon was recycled more frequently, this would lower the cost of solar panels, since the higher cost of solar panels usually results for competition with the IT silicon industry.

  • jfarmer9

    Solar Fred per volume/ per kilowatt what is the most polluting energy source?

    Answer: Solar Panels

    This answer does not even take into account the hazardous by products that are produced when making solar panel. Also in this regard eventually since the cost of solar panels needs to come down they will be made outside the US. in countries that careless about regulating the hazardous by products that solar panels produce. I don’t even think China makes any distinction from tetrachloride, sulfur hexafluoride, silicon tetrachloride, and polysilicon and regular waste. Do you think foreign countries will adopt our EPA standards? If so go ahead and take another hit buddy

  • jfarmer9

    Solar Fred per volume/ per kilowatt what is the most polluting energy source?

    Answer: Solar Panels

    This answer does not even take into account the hazardous by products that are produced when making solar panel. Also in this regard eventually since the cost of solar panels needs to come down they will be made outside the US. in countries that careless about regulating the hazardous by products that solar panels produce. I don’t even think China makes any distinction from tetrachloride, sulfur hexafluoride, silicon tetrachloride, and polysilicon and regular waste. Do you think foreign countries will adopt our EPA standards? If so go ahead and take another hit buddy

    • Rebelwoc

      China recycles their tetrachloride, sulfur hexafluoride, silicon tetrachloride, and polysilicon. They put it in our pets food and infant formula. No waste there!

  • nix

    Curious, what sort of pollutants are produced in the manufacturing process on flexible film photo cells? If someone could do an article on that, it would be great.

  • nix

    Curious, what sort of pollutants are produced in the manufacturing process on flexible film photo cells? If someone could do an article on that, it would be great.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Hi Korey,

    Glad you enjoy the site! Sorry if I wasn’t clear about the manufacturing bit – I just tweaked the post to fix that.

    Ariel

  • Hi Ariel, love what you’re doing at CleanTechnica — you’re one of the first sites I read every morning. Just had to chime in and clarify this: the panels themselves aren’t toxic while used, it’s the manufacturing process of most solar panels that produces the vast majority of waste.

    Honestly after reading the article on Venturebeat it just seems like a money-grab for more regulation. Which could be an OK thing, as long as it doesn’t make solar tech progress a bureaucratic mess and addresses the real problem: manufacturing and disposal standards.

    Thanks and keep up the awesome work,

    Korey

  • Hi Ariel, love what you’re doing at CleanTechnica — you’re one of the first sites I read every morning. Just had to chime in and clarify this: the panels themselves aren’t toxic while used, it’s the manufacturing process of most solar panels that produces the vast majority of waste.

    Honestly after reading the article on Venturebeat it just seems like a money-grab for more regulation. Which could be an OK thing, as long as it doesn’t make solar tech progress a bureaucratic mess and addresses the real problem: manufacturing and disposal standards.

    Thanks and keep up the awesome work,

    Korey

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