Are solar panels toxic? Is solar energy still a green energy? And do you need to be concerned?
Here’s what you should know.
Is Solar Energy Clean, Renewable Energy?
Besides saving money, one of the main reasons homeowners switch to solar power is to make a positive impact on the world.
Switching to solar energy lowers your carbon footprint, as it lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Solar energy is a form of renewable energy–clean and environmentally friendly.
Meanwhile, renewable energy sources cause little to no climate change emissions. This includes its whole life-cycle, including “manufacturing, installation, operation, and decommissioning.” Renewable energy emissions are minimal.
By transitioning to green, renewable energy, we can replace these sources that are greenhouse gas emission intensive (coal and natural gas) and reduce climate change emissions all together.
So why are people concerned about toxic chemicals in solar panels and how it’s impacting our environment?
The solar panel manufacturing process does contribute to some greenhouse gas emissions–although minimal. And manufacturers also use toxic chemicals in some of these panels.
While this seems like a contradiction to clean energy, it is not.
Solar panels significantly reduce the pollution and toxic chemicals that coal emits. And, as it produces electricity, it isn’t emitting greenhouse gases and pollution at all.
So solar energy itself is absolutely clean and renewable.
It’s the manufacturing process that needs some help.
Are Solar Panels Sustainable?
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is an intergovernmental organization which “supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future.” They are actively and continuously working to provide a platform for cooperation, knowledge, and information on all forms of renewable energy for everyone. And they help everyone “in the pursuit of sustainable development, energy access, energy security and low-carbon economic growth and prosperity.”
Many solar panel manufacturers already have recycling programs in place. And many more are working towards convenient recycling measures for their customers.
Nothing is achieved without effort and instant perfection is rare. It’s natural to have hiccups in the process. What’s important is that these issues are addressed and renewable energy moves forward and gets better for everyone.
More information will be gathered in research and studies. As more information is gathered, solar panels will become more efficient and cleaner to manufacture and recycle.
Are Solar Panels Toxic?
Some solar panels can contain lead, admium, and other chemicals that can only be removed if/when they are broken. But not all panels contain these chemicals in the glass.
While not an immediate danger, these chemicals can pose a problem if it is broken in a major storm and when, at the end of its life, gets put in a landfill.
These toxic chemicals and the problems they poses for us and the environment are also found in many of the materials and electronics we use today.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) did a study that found solar panels unfit for disposal in landfills as they can break and release these chemicals into the soil. Importantly, they point out that Europe, Japan, and Korea either already regulate panel recycling or are implementing measures and regulations now, while the U.S. still needs to implement regulatory framework and public solar panel recycling.
Recycling is an excellent way to reduce the emissions and chemicals used.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found in their 2016 report that “[i]f fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material [from used solar panels] could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.”
As of now, recycling is more costly, so many panels are ending up in landfills which is causing a problem. It can make solar panels more costly to manufacture than when just using raw materials. However, as recycling becomes mandatory, solar panel manufacturing should become more efficient, and more research will be done to find efficient and affordable manufacturing options.
Solar’s safety record is amazing when compared to coal and natural gas. Not only is it cleaner, it’s safer for workers, and it’s safer for you and your loved ones. In 2010 alone coal power plants emitted 1,999.6 million tons of carbon dioxide. Additionally, 13,200 deaths were directly tied to the particulates from the coal power plants that year.
Solar Manufacturing Chemicals: What’s The Cost?
Solar cells are mostly made up of silicon (derived from quartz). In order to be created, the quartz must be heated in a furnace. This is part of where the greenhouse gas emissions happen in the manufacturing process as it emits carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.
Some chemicals are used to prepare the silicon which make the wafers for monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels.
This process creates a chemical byproduct called silicon tetrachloride, and it’s quite toxic if not handled properly. It has the potential to burn the skin and emit harmful pollutants. And if it meets water, it will release hydrochloric acid which is bad for both humans and the environment.
However, professionals manufacturing the solar panels and handling these chemicals know how to handle them safely. And manufacturers can safely recycle silicon tetrachloride (and other chemicals) back into manufacturing more wafers, which helps eliminate these risks.
The majority of solar panels are overwhelmingly silicon-based and safe to use.
Thin-film solar panels are a little different, but most residential solar systems do not use this type of panel. If you’re seeking to install thin-film technology, there are other toxic materials to consider. Cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide are contained in the thin-film panels. These same chemicals are used in the manufacturing process of your other electronics (like your computer or cellphone).
These chemicals are not a danger to you while they are in the panels on your roof. They are a concern in the manufacturing process and in the disposal process.
How Is Solar Waste Mitigated?
Solar panel manufacturers should make sure that chemicals used in manufacturing and disposal are handled safely and properly.
In the past, when disreputable solar manufacturers dumped the hazardous waste into the world, they faced enough backlash that caused their stock to drop. Though perhaps not the most moral incentive, this did cause solar manufacturers around the world to tighten and heighten regulations on manufacturing, recycling, and disposal of solar panels.
Additionally, solar manufacturers have financial incentive to recycle the materials they use, which is better for the environment.
How Much Waste Does Solar Actually Create?
Greenhouse gas emissions in the solar panel process occurs mostly during manufacturing.
Manufacturing solar panels has become more efficient and researchers continue to reduce the carbon footprint that is left during this process.
So while solar energy’s popularity and affordability has gone up, so has the quality of panel and the process.
The energy/electricity that solar panels produce is 100% clean and renewable. And solar energy reduces the more threatening impact of coal emissions as more people adopt solar energy.
Overall, solar’s contribution to greenhouse gasses is very much lower than natural gas or coal emissions.
A 2011 report on solar’s greenhouse gasses illustrates how little solar’s waste actually contributes when compared to coal and natural gas.
The report puts solar energy’s contribution to our overall carbon footprint at 85 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per gigawatt-hour.
Natural gas and coal?
499 carbon dioxide equivalent per gigawatt-hour and 888 carbon dioxide equivalent per gigawatt-hour, respectively.
If you desire to help the environment, then solar panels are a great way to go.
While the manufacturing process has room for improvement (and it is being improved), solar panels and solar energy are largely better for you and the planet.
Can I Recycle My Solar Panels At The End Of Their Life?
Recycling solar panels helps mitigate their manufacturing emissions.
Some solar manufacturers have global recycling programs for their clients. But not all. As recycling becomes more prominent, perhaps these other manufacturers will join the recycling programs as well.
Fortunately, solar panels have a long life-span. And recycling hasn’t yet become a major issue since most are still in use. Additionally, manufacturers have good financial incentive to recycle these valuable and rare materials.
Considering this, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if more companies offer recycling programs in the future.
Solar Company Scorecards
Many manufacturers focus on sustainability in clean energy and actively research how to make the manufacturing and recycling process more environmentally friendly.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalitionadvocates for sustainable manufacturing in everything from electronics to solar panels.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition publishes a report card for solar panel manufacturers, which gives them a Solar Scorecard after a designated report period. This scorecard measures how these solar panel companies measure up in environmental impact and sustainability. This includes emissions, toxic materials used, water usage, and conflict materials (materials that come from unjust mining practices). It also measures how they protect employees and the community.
The scorecard is a good way to measure companies, but the scorecard doesn’t necessarily include all solar panel manufacturers. Even companies low on the list shouldn’t be immediately disregarded. This is because many of these manufacturers don’t respond to the survey or may not have accurately tracked/reported on the factors listed in the survey.
Solar panels will produce clean energy for anywhere between 20-35 years depending on the type of panel. Recycling for solar panels will continue to improve and sustainability will continue to improve right along with it.
Choosing Solar Energy: What It Means And Why It Matters
You use and come into contact everyday with electronics made of these same toxic chemicals.
Are they an environmental problem? Yes. Along with many other materials we use everyday. And that should be considered in going forward. There’s room for improvement.
Are they going to kill you? No.
Do they make your life easier, better, or more efficient? They should–or you’re using them wrong.
Solar researchers and governments on an international level are looking for better alternatives and recycling options for solar panels. And they’re doing that more so than any of your electronics since it has an immediate impact on climate change.
Solar energy may not be 100% perfect, but it’s much better and cleaner than coal. Going solar, reducing your carbon footprint, and saving money far outweighs coal pollutants and high energy costs.
Consider your solar options and choose solar companies who are making a difference today. Gather multiple quotes before you make your decision.
Home Professionals has a free-and-no-commitment solar professional and solar quote finder to help you find the best solar pros and deals in your area today.
These quotes include information about the solar panels the company recommends. But since most solar companies include a variety of equipment, you’ll have options to change according to your preferences.
Use the free quote finder below and find out how much you’ll save in money and carbon footprint reduction if you switch to solar today.