Where will solar panels go after they die?
That's the question that the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) would like the solar industry to consider now – and come up with a good recycling program.
The San Jose, Calif.-based SVTC released a report Wednesday morning calling on the solar industry to adopt environmentally friendly measures for making and disposing of solar panels.
The solar industry isn't expecting to see many solar panels destined for landfills for another 10 to 15 years. Solar panels generally have a life span of 20 years or more, and their popularly only began to rise over the past decade. But solar companies should start investing in recycling efforts now instead of waiting for their products to clog up the landfills before taking actions.
"It's an excellent time to do this considering that solar is an emerging industry," said Sheila Davis, executive director of SVTC. "It will be an environmental advantage if you have panels that not only contribute to sustainability and reduce carbon emissions, but also use renewable and sustainable materials."
Solar panels, like electronics and medicines, bring enormous benefits to our lives. They also are made with chemical compounds that could be hazardous to our health if the wrong doses are used. They also could pose danger not only to consumers, but also factory workers making the products.
The SVTC report outlines materials being used – and the processes involved – in making solar panels and the health problems they could cause. Some of these materials, such as cadmium and selenium, can cause serious health problems if humans are exposed to them in certain concentrations or over a prolonged period of time. Some of the materials haven't gone though enough tests to show their safety levels, the SVTC said.
As more solar companies explore the use of different materials, better testing methods should be developed to ensure their safety, Davis said. Better yet, companies should actively develop ingredients that are less toxic to begin with, she said.
The SVTC also wants solar equipment makers to come up ways to take back discarded solar panels and recycle them.
Whether these recommendations will be widely embraced by the solar industry will depend largely on exactly how they are carried out. Solar industry representatives say they, too, want to ensure the manufacturing methods they use aren't going to poison people or the environment.
"We want to be part of the solutions and not to create environmental problems," said Monique Hanis, communications director with the Solar Energies Industry Association. "We have a great opportunity to embrace these recommendations and continue to improve the processes for the industry."
Some solar companies have actively touted their manufacturing and recycling efforts to show there are aware of the issues.
First Solar, the largest maker of cadmium-telluride solar panels, runs a recycling program and explains what it does with unwanted panels on its Website.
A group of solar companies banded together in 2007 to create PV Cycle Association, which is developing a voluntary solar panel recycling program in Europe. The association, whose members include equipment makers and installers, plans to present the program to the European Commission by April 1 of this year.
But most solar equipment makers in other parts of the world, including the United States, don't have recycling programs.
A story in the Washington Post last year highlighted the damage that could come from an industry that is quick to tout its environmental credentials. The story described the practice by a Chinese maker of polysilicon, the main ingredient for making the most common types of solar panels today, to dump its factory wastes in an open field, between a school and cornfields.
Davis said state and federal governments also should draft regulations to mandate tougher materials testing and solar panel recycling, and figuring out who or how to pay for them. Otherwise the solar industry could follow the footsteps of the electronics industry, which started promoting recycling way too late, Davis added.
"Look at the electronics industry and do the opposite," Davis said. "It's only in the last few years that they saw the writing on the wall. People have become far more conscious about recycling, so [electronics makers] are getting on that band wagon."