The Truth about Dangerous Chemicals in Solar Panels
In 1839, a French physicist, Edmond Becquerel, discovered the photovoltaic effect, which produces a voltage or electric current when exposed to light or radiant energy. Since then, he has inspired other scientists and mathematicians to continue his work.
Notably, a French mathematician, Augustin Mochot, began registering patents for solar-powered engines in 1860. American innovators started filing for patents for solar-powered devices in 1888.
Fast-forward to 2022, and solar-powered devices are more popular than ever with environmentalists and clean energy activist groups all over social media. Utilizing the mighty sun’s power to harness clean and free energy while alleviating the effects of climate change – sounds great, doesn’t it?
Solar Panels: Are they a Health And Environmental Hazard
With all the seemingly amazing things that solar power offers, why hasn’t solar energy replaced the current energy status quo? Here’s why.
Current Global Solar Energy Situation
At the end of 2021, the top three countries that use solar power are China, with 35.6 % of the world’s total solar energy, the U.S. with 10.6%, and Japan with 9.4%. Coincidentally, these three are also in the world’s top 5 largest electricity consumers.
China is the undisputed leader in solar installations, with over 35% of global capacity. What’s more, the country is showing no signs of slowing down. It has the highest number of wind and solar projects pending, which are expected to add another 400,000MW to its clean energy capacity.
Following China from a distance is the U.S., which recently surpassed 100,000MW of solar power capacity after installing another 50,000MW in the first three months of 2021. Annual solar growth in the U.S. has averaged an impressive 42% over the last decade.
Policies like the Federal solar investment tax credit, which offers a 26% tax credit on residential and commercial solar systems, have helped propel the industry forward.
Germany, India, and Italy are next with 7.5%, 5.5%, and 3% respectively.
These six countries saw solar power as the best alternative to reduce their conventional electricity use. Consequently, this makes them the world’s largest contributors to solar power-related waste.
There are factors limiting solar installations.
- Limitations of production. Nearly all solar panels being made are being sold before they are even manufactured. Manufacturing companies are producing solar panels almost as fast as they can be installed.
- Lobbying by energy companies. Power companies that own coal, oil, and natural gas power plants stand to lose money if consumers install solar and thus generate their own power, so they have organized extensive lobbying against solar. They suggest solar panels contain dangerous chemicals and that solar panels cause pollution.
What are solar panels actually made of?
In 2018, Michael Shellenberger wrote an article for Forbes Magazine with the question: “If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste?” Which immediately begged the question: What are solar panels made of? Note that the author of that article is a nuclear power lobbyist.
Solar panels are made with PV (photovoltaic) cells of silicon semiconductors that absorb sunlight and create an electric current. 95% of all photovoltaic cells are made entirely of Silicon, an element so common that it makes up 27.7% of the entire Earth’s crust and is the second-most abundant element we have (second only to Oxygen).
Aside from regular PV cells, PV thin films are also used in solar panel manufacturing. These films are made of the following:
- Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide (CIS/CIGS)
- Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)
- Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)
- Cadmium Hallium (di)Selenide
- Polyvinyl Fluoride
The materials used in making thin film solar panels can be toxic. These toxic chemicals are introduced into the environment in two stages of a solar panel’s lifespan – production and disposal. During production, these chemicals are gathered, manipulated, heated, cooled, and a plethora of other processes which involve human beings in every step. Not to mention the exhaust gasses that factories spew into the atmosphere.
However, all residential and commercial solar installations happening today are done with silicon cells, which contain no toxins.
At the end of a solar panel’s life-cycle, solar panels are taken to recycling plants to be broken down and scrapped for recyclable materials. The aluminum frames and trace elements of silver are the most valuable components. When standard silicon-photovoltaic-cell solar panels are broken apart there are no major toxic chemicals released into the environment.
According to solar power experts, solar panel recycling efforts are dramatically increasing and will explode with full force in two or three decades and improve the ease of recycling solar panels. The reality is that there are now many companies who understand how to recycle solar panels, and this number will get larger, expanding as rapidly as the PV industry grew ten years ago.
One nuclear power proponent, Jack Dini, argued that solar power creates more toxic waste and pollution per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. His book, “Challenging Environmental Mythology”, argues for nuclear power, but fails to emphasize that all 3 new-age energy sources: solar, wind, and nuclear all produce dramatically less pollution than coal and oil energy.
Experimental thin-film solar substrates are still considered by many to be dangerous. “Contrary to previous assumptions, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over several months, for example, by rainwater, making it possible for different bodies of water to be contaminated.”
These chemicals don’t appear in modern aluminum-frame solar panels.
Recycling has begun to solve this problem, with more and more companies offering recycling.
ROSI Solar, a French startup founded in 2017, recently announced plans to build a new recycling plant in Grenoble, France. Yun Luo, ROSI’s CEO, says the company has developed a process to extract the silver, silicon, and other high-value materials from used panels. The plant should open before the end of 2022 with a contract from Soren, a French trade association.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated there were about 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste to be recycled at the end of that year. IRENA projected that this amount could reach 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
Where do we go from here?
To start powering your home with solar (in the US), an average residential 5kW size system costs between $3 and $5 per watt, according to the CSE (Centre for Sustainable Energy), which results in the $15,000 to $25,000 range. That’s just for installation. Solar energy is cheaper in the long run, but many people are apprehensive about the initial investment.
A solar panel is a sandwich of thin silicon solar cells insulated on one side by plastic and the other side by glass, all held together by a sturdy aluminum frame. The back of the solar panel contains a junction box with wiring that channels the electricity into a positive and negative output.
When being recycled, the solar panels aluminum frame is easiest to recycle. Recycling companies take off the panel frame and the junction box to recover the aluminum and copper, which are some of the most commonly recycled materials in the world. The rest of the module can then either be re-tested and re-used in other solar panels, or crushed to make an impure crushed glass powder.
Recycling has also become mandatory in some areas.
“If we don’t mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfills,” said Arizona State University solar researcher Meng Tao, who authored a paper reviewing the recycling of silicon solar panels.
In addition to developing better recycling methods, the solar industry has started repurposing solar panels and reusing them in areas where available space is less at a premium.
One company called Recycle PV Solar recertifies and then resells the recycled solar panels it receives after testing them to ensure they are in good condition. Sam Vanderhoof, its CEO, says this helps to offset the cost of recycling. Some solar panels are also making their way overseas to poorer countries to generate electricity where any amount of electricity can be an improvement over current access.
It is estimated that taking apart your average 72-cell silicon solar panel can get $5-$10 for the aluminum, copper, and glass alone. They can fetch more if they are simply reused elsewhere.
Solar panels can fail over time, typically as a result of the silicon cells breaking down or the wiring connections inside breaking down after decades of exposure to the elements. But most manufacturers offer warranties on the output of their solar panels for as long as 25 years.
The solar recycling industry is growing and is being supported by policies and regulations. In the EU producers of solar panels also finance the recycling of solar panels. Lawmakers and solar manufacturers have recognized that recycling benefits the solar industry and the ecosystem.
Other Alternative Energy Sources
Aside from solar, other methods of generating alternative energy have been around for years. These methods include wind turbines, hydroelectric plants, geothermal energy, biofuel, and biomass. Each alternative power source finds it opponents.
Wind power takes up large amounts of skyline, and some people find them ugly to look at. Biomass and biofuels typically use corn crops that could otherwise be used as food. Nearly 50% of our corn crops go to produce corn ethanol.
Wind turbines are spun by the wind to generate power, hydroelectric plants are powered by water, biomass use existing organic waste to create thermal energy which is then converted to power. These alternatives are still being developed and have their own side effects.
Manufacturers making new Tier 1 solar panels use almost entirely non-toxic chemicals, meaning that you don’t need to search for non-toxic solar panels to expect them to be used in your project. Even factoring in emissions caused during the manufacture of solar panels, solar is still about 100 times less polluting than coal and 50 times less polluting than natural gas.
Solar power is now the most ecologically friendly option when it comes to generating energy, second only to wind power. But solar doesn’t require huge swaths of land and can be installed to be nearly invisible on open land. By switching to solar today all of us can contribute to making the world a healthier place to live.