Following some critical reports about improper handling and disposal of toxic waste, the U.S. solar industry is feeling the heat. The flame is a February 2013 article published by The Associated Press (AP) that raised questions about the industry’s “dirtier side.”
In response to an AP records request for 41 California solar manufacturers, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC) provided data that showed 17 had reported waste, while the remaining did not. The article noted: “The state records show the 17 companies, which had 44 manufacturing facilities in California, produced 46.5 million pounds (23,250 tons) of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011. Roughly 97% of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds (700 tons) were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
While the numbers may seem alarming at first glance, a second look reveals that there are more layers to this story. The AP would not share with Home Power the list of solar manufacturers that the article addressed, and a spokesperson for the CDTSC said that records requests are not saved and this exact dataset was no longer available.
Dr. Vasilis M. Fthenakis, an expert in PV technology credited with advancing lead-free soldering for PV applications and developing research in thin-film technologies, had the opportunity to examine the records referenced in the article earlier this year and found “the volumes of waste generated in California between 2007 and 2011 are not indicative of the amount of waste being generated by mature manufacturing operations today.”
Fthenakis, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and the director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University, found the article’s interpretations to be “distorting of the facts.” To start, he took issue with the obvious contradiction: The article vilifies U.S. PV manufacturers for following the rules—reporting and handling wastes in accordance with state and federal regulations, and transporting 3% of the waste to Environmental Protection Agency-approved handling facilities in other states.
The records, he says, showed “mostly dilute liquid solutions reflecting startup operations that have not optimized material utilization, and facilities that had not yet invested in liquid-solid separations and recycling processes to minimize the amount of hazardous waste generated.”
“In mature operations,” says Fthenakis, “hazardous compounds are precipitated and/or separated with ion-exchange processes and liquids are regenerated and/or recycled, to minimize the amount of hazardous waste that has to be disposed.”
Dustin Mulvaney, the key source for the AP story, agrees with Fthenakis on this point. “A lot of the companies that are in those records are startups that were trying to perfect their recipe for solar panels during those years. Experimentation like that usually creates more waste than a mature manufacturing facility that has refined its processes,” Mulvaney says.
“Any form of energy production has a dirty side, and solar is no exception, but I do think we tend to hold solar manufacturers to higher standards,” says Mulvaney. “Unlike conventional fossil-fueled technologies, solar power does not produce harmful greenhouse gases or other air pollutants during operation. The concerns with the chemicals are at the beginning and end of the module’s life cycle.”(For more information on how PV electricity compares to fossil-fuel produced electricity, see homepower.com/thebigpicture.)