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Published on May 1st, 2014 | by Roy L Hales

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Solar Panels & Their Toxic Emissions

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May 1st, 2014 by
 

Originally published on the ECOreport.

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Last 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, are 100% recyclable because 85% of the components are recycled materials. Both Abound Solar and First Solar reclaim 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 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. 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 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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About the Author

is the editor of the ECOreport (www.theecoreport.com), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of North America and writes for both Clean Techncia and PlanetSave. He is a research junkie who has written hundreds of articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.



  • jeffhre

    “The toxins from some solar panels are leeching into the soil at landfills. What are we going to do about this?”

    Well, let’s take corrective action on the last 1% of the problem while it is still a tiny issue, in a minuscule portion of the waste-stream of course. There is no reason to wait as clearly several manufacturers are doing excellent work to reduce the impacts encountered so far. Let’s get that last 1% done, while the other 99% takes out the myriad of toxins, pollutants and carbon from fossil fuels!

  • Carl

    The title of this article is sensationalist, and the body is quite milquetoast.

    It just cites one example of one factory, that “not disposing of their solar panels once their lifespan expires.”

    Then it says “If the panels go to a landfill,” which is again sensationalist to base the rest of an article on an “if.”

    How about we focus on IF the solar panels are recycled, as they can be.

    Let’s focus on the fact that those heavy metals and materials are also in our computers, phones, and all kinds of other technology, so it means nothing to point out what happens when factories don’t dispose of things according to code – this occurs constantly in West Virginia with the coal polluting drinking water, but the milquetoast author couldn’t find the effort to focus on that, either.

    Instead it’s just a smear job that, as you can see in the comments, is inducing people against going solar for rooftop distributed generation.

    Putting the BS back in aBSurd, thanks whoever this author is…

    • Bobytola

      I totally agree with you.

  • Doug

    Are large numbers of solar panel owners really going to send their panels to the landfill? This doesn’t even make sense. Solar panels will continue operation until the building is eventually taken down – which may be considerably more than 25 years.

  • Hans

    For the casual reader without much background knowledge on the subject the article seems to say that all solar panels contain gallium arsenide and cadmium telluride. The article would be greatly improved if it was made clear that there are many types of solar modules and most of the sold solar modules contain silicon solar cells, which do not contain the GaAs or CdTe. (see for example: http://www.pv-magazine.com/news/details/beitrag/multicrystalline-silicon-modules-to-dominate-pv-industry-in-2014_100013222/).

    Furthermore, most of the technology to recycle PV modules already exists. It is not so difficult to design a regulation that takes care it is applied: Manufacturers would have to pay a small fee in a recycling fund for each module sold. If a module would reach its end of life the manufacturer could get the fee (+20 to 30 yrs of interest!) back if it recycled the module. If the manufacturer would not be willing to do so, or if it would be bankrupt the fund would pay out the fee some other company to recycle the module.

    In Europe there is a voluntary organisation to recycle PV modules. It covers about 80% of the PV market:

    http://www.bnl.gov/pv/files/PRS_Agenda/1_Gomez_PVCYCLE_34PVSC.pdf
    http://www.pvcycle.org

    • Bobytola

      Crystalline CdTe and GaAs are not toxic.

  • shecky vegas

    Finally the Truth is out of the bag! Solar panels poison our planet! Thank God somebody finally had the nerve to stand up to the solar panel cartel and expose this horrid truth!
    Now we can finally go back to SAFE energy sources like oil, and coal, and nuclear energy, and natural gas, and…

    • Hans

      Irony or stupidity? Hard to tell on the internets.

      • Bob_Wallace

        snark

  • Michael Berndtson

    Sorry cleantechnica, but the heading to this post is bad. The post itself is confusing. Please, don’t do post and runs. Unless the purpose is simply to lure in the goofs.

    It’s essential to understand fate and transport of chemicals in the environment and the relationship of toxicology. There’s three things governing toxicity of a material: 1) intrinsic or inherent chemical and physical properties like density, solubility and volatility 2) fate and transport or the matter from point of origin into and through the environment, and 3) exposure and dose of the material, via pathways such as inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption, to a receptor. Since we live in a modern industrial society, there’s toxic chemicals all over the place. It’s how we manage these chemicals throughout the life cycle, from extraction through disposal, that matters.

    Here’s are two studies on chemical leaching and fate and transport from PV panels:

    From USGS: “Photovoltaic Nanomaterial Roofing on Harvested Rainwater Quality”
    http://water.usgs.gov/wrri/10grants/progress/2010TX360B.pdf

    From NIH, “Fate and transport evaluation of potential leaching risks from cadmium telluride photovoltaics.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22553085

    Writing posts like this to stir up an old issue that’s already been rigorously researched is not interesting. Unless you like to have your blog posts linked to Breitbart, Drudge Report, and Alec Jones’ Infowars to stir up anti PV panel sentiments.

  • sault

    Solar panels are lasting a lot longer than people thought. And when these older panels are taken apart and examined, the major causes of performance degradation are delamination of the semiconductor matrerial from its top coating material or UV-darkening of adhesives / polymers on top of the semiconductor material. The cells themselves usually stay intact for decades since if they weren’t, we would be seeing a lot of moisture and oxidation damage on these cells, but this is not the case.
    Silicon, CdTe and other semiconductor materials can mostly be recycled, but of course no process is 100% perfect. The 95% recycling rates we see are better than lead acid battery recycling rates and rival that of the steel industry.
    While reports like this are a good way to keep the industry from slacking off, keep in mind that the fossil fuel companies and their paid shills will ALWAYS quote mine and take passages from reports like this out of context to further their agenda. And it’s ironic that people who are worried about toxic materials from the solar industry don’t even give a second thought to the much more pressing hazard of our nightmarish e-waste problem as they spread their FUD about solar panels from their computers and mobile devices.

    • Bob_Wallace

      ” it’s ironic that people who are worried about toxic materials from the solar industry don’t even give a second thought to the much more pressing hazard of our nightmarish e-waste problem as they spread their FUD about solar panels from their computers and mobile devices.”

      I’d bet that most of the people who get up in arms over toxic materials in solar panels support fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

      Molehill. Mount Everest.

      • Otis11

        That was my thought… how many toxic materials are sent airborne combusting FFs? I’d guess even if solar panels were just trashed they would release less toxins over their life than the FFs they replace.

        Similar to when people were complaining about mercury in CFL. Sad truth is, in coal based areas they reduce so many mercury emissions by using less electricity that even if they aren’t recycled, it’s still a net improvement.

        • jeffhre

          “Image above: rain on the first panel – h080, (CC BY-SA 2.0)”

          Image above: acid rain with trace elements of lead and mercury in a light mist of nitrous oxides from burning fossil fuels, settling on the first panel – h080, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

          There all done! I just thought I would fix that real fast.

      • matt

        Fossil fuels and nuclear energy are extremely different. Nuclear is just about the most efficient and (if done right) environmentally friendly way to get energy.

        • Bob_Wallace

          If done right.

          Done right means installing solar panels pointed toward the one safe nuclear source, the one far enough away from us that we don’t have to worry about radioactive waste.

          And we can install wind turbines and hydro turbines to harvest the secondary energy from that safe nuclear reaction.

          Any other nuclear plants are done wrong.

          And too expensive to consider.

  • Omega Centauri

    The issue isn’t how they recycle today, few panels were produced thirty years ago, there are few panels to recycle today (probably just broken and defective ones). Thirty years from now the industry will probably have undergone radical change, and we can’t predict who will be around, and what technology they use. Will it be Silicon based? Or Pervoskite based? Or something else entirely? The main thing should be for companies (or the industry as a whole), to set up a fund for end of life processing, since we can’t guarantee any of the present manufacturers will be around.

    • Emmett

      Will also add that panels are not necessarily taken down after 30 years. If they still are producing at 80% and are fully paid for, why would you take them down. they may be on your roof for 50 or 60 years. And I suspect 50 years from now EVERYTHING will be recycled.

  • JamesWimberley

    Kyocera’s guarantee of 80% output after 25 years is merely the industry standard. Source: Sean Roe. The mean is quite a bit higher than this.

  • Thinktank

    May be it’s not a good idea to install solar panels on roof where gallium arsenide toxins can leech into drinking water.

    • Matt

      The problem isn’t that they leech when they are rain on, it is when you break them up in a land fill. Be a lot more worried about the items that fall on you from the sky placed there by coal power plants. Or their mine trailing, or coal ash.

    • Omega Centauri

      GaAs is only used in certain ultra-high performnace but pricy panels. Like those from Alta Devices. CdTe is again a special type of panel used almost exclusively in large utility ground mounts by First Solar.

      • jeffhre

        And they will mainly be sitting there for the next 40 or 50 years, wonder if someone can figure out solutions to the horrible looming crisis that may result from their disposal. In the next 40 or 50 years. When incredibly small portions of the toxins at their edges, begin to slowly leach out, from the movement of water, around panels buried in landfills and covered with dirt, 40 or 50 years from now. After pulling millions of tons of pollutants from the air by replacing fossil fuels.

    • jeffhre

      Off the top of my head with no attempt at actual calculations, there will be more naturally occurring gallium and arsenic in household soil than would accumulate from (broken) solar panels on a rooftop in 500 years.

      Let alone being able to leech into drinking water.

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