Solar Power's Toxic Footprint

According to figures released by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control DTSC, solar manufacturers in the state produced over 46 million pounds of hazardous waste between 2007 and 2011. 1.4 million pounds of that waste, which included polluted water and heavy metals such as cadmium, was shipped out of state -- meaning that calculations of solar's climate benefit must account for fuel used to ship that hazardous waste.

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San Jose State Environmental Studies professor Dustin Mulvaney told the Associated Press' Jason Dearen that the fuel used to transport hazardous waste for the manufacture of a typical solar panel is equivalent to the carbon emissions avoided by about two or three months' panel production.

Some of the hazardous waste production stems from younger companies failure to implement recycling programs, reports Dearen. The solar technology used also makes a difference: waste cadmium is produced during the manufacture of cadmium telluride thin-film solar panels, and not so much with other types of photovoltaic cells.

The Associated Press filed information requests on solar companies' waste reporting with the DTSC. Dearen reports that 17 of 41 California solar firms reported hazardous waste production between 2007 and 2011. One of those firms was the famously failed Solyndra, which reported production of 12.5 million pounds of hazardous waste -- one pound for every $42.80 the firm received in federal loan guarantees. Much of Solyndra's waste was cadmium-contaminated waste water.

Almost all of California's toxic solar waste is disposed of in state: of the 1.4 million pounds shipped out of state, most went to either Arkansas or Nevada.

That's still significantly less hazardous waste than is produced per kilowatt-hour by conventional sources of power like coal and even "clean-burning" natural gas, of course, and much of the toxic stuff formed when fossil fuels are burned is dispersed throughout our air and water rather than sequestered in hazmat facilities.

Still, it does no one good to pretend this issue doesn't exist. And for that reason, solar trade groups' quotes in Dearen's article are dispiriting. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), for instance, is pushing a voluntary environmental responsibility pledge, but they're not pushing it too hard: SEIA has 81 member corporations that are solar manufacturers, and only 7 have signed.

Especially as manufacturing moves to countries like China where environmental and workplace safety laws are next to nonexistent, we can't afford to greenwash the actual impact of photovoltaic panels, lest someone else pay the environmental price for our green lifestyle.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Full Disclosure: I am involved in the solar industry.
It would be interesting to see Mr. Delaney's figures on other renewable, as well as non-renewable, energy sources. Tagging the solar industry with "fuel to transport hazardous waste" is misleading at least and dishonest at worst. Given that standard, your favorite renewable: hydroelectric should be tagged with the cost of cleaning up the waterways where they gain their power. Hydroelectric is a great resource, but so is wind, wave action, solar, geothermal, etc. You are knowledgeable about each of these and do a fair job reporting so it's not clear why this piece doesn't delve into other renewables.

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thanks for your comment, tctaylor. This was a quick piece responding to Jason Dearen's coverage at Associated Press, so I didn't go too far afield from that original article. I do mention that solar stacks up very well against NON-renewables, but you're right: we don't compare solar PV to wind, hydro, geothermal, etc. in this piece.

I share your admitted bias in favor of solar -- especially distributed PV -- so I understand where you're coming from. That said, I stick with the last two paragraphs of the piece: the solar industry has a chance to do things right. Failing to pay attention to the waste problem isn't a solution, even if the problem is significantly smaller than those caused by other renewables.

I pay close attention to the environmental ills caused by all other renewables when I can, to the occasional consternation of those other sectors of the industry. If I'm critical of wind, concentrating solar, geothermal and large hydro, but not of solar PV, then my personal biases in favor of that last tech become seriously problematic. Fair is fair!

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One of the great things about thermodynamic panels is that they do not require sunlight they work by collecting heat from the atmosphere and converting this into energy.