The Not-So-Sunny Side of This Hot Energy Source

Millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water are produced during the manufacturing of solar panels.

solar panels
Home solar installations are becoming increasingly popular. (Steven Puetzer/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Solar power, for good reason, has a lot of fans. “It's hip, it's cool, it's trendy...and it's green,” according to the Australian solar company Energy Matters. And it’s certainly true that producing solar power is far cleaner than fossil fuels which are one of the main causes of pollution and global warming.

But like every good hero, the solar industry has its kryptonite. In this case, it’s the hazardous waste that’s created by the production of solar panels.

ABC News recently reported that while government incentives have been a boon to the solar industry, the millions of panels being manufactured are also producing millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water. “In many cases, a toxic sludge is created when metals and other toxins are removed from water used in the manufacturing process. If a company doesn't have its own treatment equipment, then it will send contaminated water to be stored at an approved dump.”

Putting aside the idea of transporting a lot of toxic sludge from one place to another—most plants don’t have on-site treatment equipment—a number of scientists have pointed out that the transport of solar waste isn’t being factored into the product’s carbon footprint score, which measures the amount of greenhouse gases produced during a product’s manufacturing.

Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San José State University, told TakePart that he’s been doing life cycle analyses and carbon footprints of energy technologies since he was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, after which he started a sustainability consulting firm, EcoShift. “My particular interest in solar came through work with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition,” he said.

“Approximating the greenhouse gas emissions associated with any product requires gathering information about direct energy use, embodied energy—the energy it takes to make some of the key inputs and infrastructure—and the carbon intensity of the various energy inputs,” said Mulvaney. “Coal, for example, has a higher carbon intensity than natural gas.” 

Asked if knowing more about the hazardous waste created by the solar industry might influence consumers even though solar power is still a cleaner option than fossil fuels, Mulvaney said, “Solar power is an order of magnitude cleaner than coal and fracked natural gas.”

And, “If consumers know more about the hazardous waste emissions associated with solar manufacturing, there could be pressure on companies to reduce their emissions or seek onsite treatment options where opportunities exist. More efficient use of chemicals ultimately could reduce the carbon footprint of solar as well as reduce manufacturing costs, which is the primary obstacle to more widespread photovoltaics adoption.”

SolarPowerIsTheFuture.com states that, “The sun is the world's largest power plant. It provides more energy to the earth in one hour than that produced by all nations in a year.”

We just need to make sure that the journey from the sun to a solar-powered home remains as clean as possible.

Are you surprised to hear about the hazardous waste and carbon footprint created by solar panel production?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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