The darkness behind solar energy

Manufacturing solar energy could contribute to global warming.
Solar power plant 'Gemasolar' situated near Seville in Spain

Solar, is considered clean energy and a much welcome alternative to fossil fuels. However, like the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) pointed out in a 2009 report, the problem comes at the beginning and end of a solar panel’s life. The production process of solar energy has been marred by the use of dangerous chemicals that emit greenhouse gases. The fear now is that the growing solar industry may create a whole new set of environmental concerns that will require generations to confront.

Manufacturing solar energy requires potentially toxic heavy metals that produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The process also requires the use of large amounts of water and electricity  which come from fossil fuel-burning power plants that emit toxic greenhouse gases.

Some countries are already heavily polluted due to their dependence on fossil fuels for electricity. China for example is the world’s biggest photovoltaics manufacturer producing nearly half the world’s cells. Researchers in Illinois at Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University found that the carbon footprint of photovoltaic panels made in China is about double that of those manufactured in Europe. If the photovoltaic panels made in China were installed in China, the high carbon intensity of the energy used and that of the energy saved would cancel each other out. However, the manufacturing in China is done for Western market. This means that China’s emissions are not being cancelled out, but those in Europe and U.S are, so China will take longer to counter its own emissions.

The solar production process also creates dangerous waste during production and at the end of life of the solar cells or panels, which if not disposed of properly will inevitably cause pollution. In August 2011, a factory in China’s Zhejiang province owned by Jinko Solar Holding Co. one of the largest photovoltaic companies in the world, spilled hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive and poisoning liquid, into the nearby Mujiaqiao River killing hundreds of fish and all animals that got in contact with the contaminated water. The levels of hydrofluoric acid found in the river at the time of measurement were 10times more than the permitted limit.

Climate change researcher Aixue Hu found that solar panels also tend to cause regional cooling when converting sunlight into electricity and increase urban area temperatures when the said electricity transforms into heat. However, while large solar arrays can cause some significant regional changes in climate, globally it will not affect the global climate much. In contrast, if people switched from conventional fossil fuels to solar cells, air pollution would be cut by approximately 90%.

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Is anything being done?

Regulations and guidelines for the industry have been established. For example, Solar Energy Industries Association, proposed new industry guidelines in a document called the “Solar Industry Environment & Social Responsibility Commitment,” that urges companies to ask suppliers to report on manufacturing practices and any chemical and greenhouse-gas emissions.

In 2011, China also set standards requiring that companies recycle at least 98.5% of their silicon tetrachloride waste. European recent regulations recommend the reduction and proper disposal of hazardous electronic waste.

To stop reliance on fossil fuel electricity, scientists are researching ways to economically store power from solar cells on a large scale. This will enable a self-sustaining process and could enable solar cell factories to run off solar power. With new technologies, in the future, we may entirely rely on solar itself.

Alternatives for the dangerous chemicals are being researched on by numerous scholars. So far the findings are inefficient but it’s an encouraging path being towed. Researchers are working on developing organic solar cells that generate electricity and finding substitute less dangerous chemicals.

SVTC tracks emissions, chemical toxicity, water use, and recycling of high-tech industries and their environmental impact. It relies on companies’ self-reported data for its scorecard, with a target to increase transparency in the production process of the industry.

SVTC believes that if companies adopt sustainable practices early on, then maybe over the next 10 or 15 years, as the panels begin to come down, they’ll be recycled and there will be zero waste.

The challenges

Whereas recycling will require less energy, saving money as compared to using raw materials, the reprocessing equipment are very costly. This prompts most companies to just throw away the by-products to save costs.

The entry of profit oriented manufacturers into the market that care less about their environmental impact. These manufacturers stubbornly refuse to provide any environmental or sustainability data on their supply chains or manufacturing operations.

Varying regulations and manufacturing practices similarly make it difficult to get standardized data about the environmental footprint of photovoltaic panels. For example, a study released in May, 2014 by Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory found that the carbon footprint of a panel from China is twice that of one from Europe, because China has fewer environmental standards and more coal-fired power plants.

The lack of awareness by ordinary persons that solar panels are not all created equal from an environmental standpoint poses a problem since they can’t demand for accountability without knowledge. Also, not every consumer has access to a free take-back program, and indeed many consumers may not even be aware of the need to dispose of panels responsibly.

It seems generally that solutions exist to all the side effects. However to attain this, the use of dangerous chemicals during the production of solar cells and the disposal of solar waste at the end of its lifetime must be effectively contained. Hopefully when the industry matures, solar companies will adopt stronger sustainability measures. Mulvaney of SVTC said that it already registered a change since it began its scorecard survey with more companies producing sustainability reports. Also CIGS-photovoltaic manufacturers; Avancis and Solar Frontier are already using zinc sulfide, instead of cadmium sulfide.

Agodo Shabella Patience

Agodo Shabella Patience is a Ugandan Lawyer with keen interest on the Environment and Climate change. She is the founder and Executive Director of Green Teso Initiative a climate change Advocacy NGO based in Eastern Uganda.
13 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Janie Hinson
    23 September 2016 at 2:36 pm
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    Good job for getting the word out. There is no “clean coal” and solar panals are not perfect but we must continue to work and improve. We are beginning to see how important Origin labeling is I for one will push to continue to make consumers iknowledgeable and responsible.

  • Avatar
    23 September 2016 at 4:34 pm
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    Solar panels will soon be made from Graphene and or magnesium chloride, less cost, less toxic things are always changing

    • Agodo Shabella Patience
      Agodo shabella
      7 October 2016 at 2:59 am
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      Yes, things are always changing and hopefully for the better. Various researchers and companies continue to search for less toxic and costly raw materials. for example, Researchers at Rohm & Haas Electronic Materials, also identified substitutes for the hydrofluoric acid used in solar-cell manufacture, sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Sodium Chloride is a caustic chemical,however, it is easier to treat and dispose of compared to hydrofluoric acid and is less risky for workers.

      At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., researchers are looking for ways to make polysilicon with ethanol instead of chlorine-based chemicals, in a bid to avoid the creation of silicon tetrachloride altogether.

      All in all, there’s a lot of research being done to better the industry but unfortunately it cannot be done in one day :(. The knowledge of the progress however remains important to us the consumers

  • Avatar
    23 September 2016 at 4:55 pm
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    Where do the batteries end up in Solar energy? Why can’t we rely on the simple system of having small batteries rotate a system of magnets? Energy producing energy with less toxic waste from batteries- or how about unique in wall and floor pulley systems that we can physically make ” need it now” energy? Gosh, I remember being intrigued by Tesla and that massive output of power why try to hold power? Why not make it while we need it? Materials that naturally hold warmth and release it during the evening. Just rambling and wondering.

  • Avatar
    24 September 2016 at 2:26 am
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    Very interesting article. Never knew about the manufacturing and how dirty it was. Sad to know

  • Avatar
    24 September 2016 at 3:04 pm
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    This article come to no conclusion. Even with the negative slant of piece, it is stated that if we switched from fossil fuels to solar, air pollution would be cut by 90%!! How is this a bad thing? Look at net results folks.

    • Agodo Shabella Patience
      Agodo shabella
      7 October 2016 at 3:17 am
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      No indeed, it is not a bad thing. It is merely a controversy. The irony that clean energy is entirely produced using fossil fuel energy and many people are not aware of this fact.
      To put the conclusion quite clearly, solar energy is entirely clean energy, however its cleanliness is tainted by its production process. Its production process needs cleaning out but of course that will take a while so as we wait, it is important that people have this knowledge. With knowledge, people have the power to push solar companies to further their research through selective consumption. When you know what companies are putting in more effort to clean the production process, you will consume more of their products and eventually cornering those that aren’t, forcing them into acting with more caution as opposed to being only profit driven.

  • Avatar
    24 September 2016 at 3:47 pm
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    Very dissappointing article. Breathing produces greenhouse gasses, nail polish is toxic, heavy metals are all around us. Raising concerns is easy, but providing perspective, apparently not so much. How much greenhouse gas is generated from the manufacturing of PV compared with its useful 25 years of power generation, when compared with oil-fired generation? Such an answer would be informative

  • Avatar
    Godo Stoyke
    24 September 2016 at 5:20 pm
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    According to the researchers, the carbon footprint of PV modules made in China is 69g CO2e/kWh and 32g if made in Europe, for the most commonly sold type (polycrystalline;, graph at But the carbon footprint of coal is 990 g, and that of natural gas 477 ( So, the statement “If the photovoltaic panels made in China were installed in China, the high carbon intensity of the energy used and that of the energy saved would cancel each other out.” Is puzzling. In fact, since China uses a lot of coal, deploying solar modules in China makes a LOT of sense, EVEN if they are made in China, though theoretically deploying European solar modules in China would be even better.

  • Avatar
    24 September 2016 at 5:28 pm
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    if ur right ur right. u can recycle the thing which is obviously better then the other side. take a picture. in the wrong side. that requires to pollute every day when we already have batterys in our cars. recycling should be affrodable since the materials is giving.

  • Avatar
    Teddy Kinyanjui
    26 May 2017 at 7:10 pm
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    very interesting article, thank you! could you write more about the life cycle of new energy tech,esp. in an east african context. 🙂

  • Avatar
    19 November 2017 at 4:02 pm
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    Thank you for raising this topic, it is important! I wanted to note to you that some of the words appear crossed out in the article when viewed in Chrome browser, and it is confusing as to why. An editing or perhaps a browser or html code error?

    • WiB Team
      WiB Team
      20 November 2017 at 11:25 am
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      Hi Sadie, thanks for pointing this out, we will rectify immediately!

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