Not so Green Solar Energy

You think solar electrical generation is going to save you or the Planet? Think again.

While it is true that photovoltaic solar panels do not pollute while they are producing electricity -- what about the manufacturing process? What happens when these panels reach the end of their projected lifecycle in twenty-five years? (This is, by the way, an optimistic view of their useful life.)

Those questions are addressed in a study by the watchdog group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

"Green Power" is being hyped as the "Safe Solution."  It is anything but safe -- when all factors are considered.

Here is a partial list (eight of fifty) of chemicals associated with solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing and disposal:

  • Arsenic (As) can be released from the decomposition of discarded GaAs solar PV cells. Inhalation of high levels of arsenic causes throat soreness, lung irritation, increased lung cancer risk, nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and "pins and needles" sensations in hands and feet. Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for an extended period causes skin darkening, and small "corns" or "warts" appear on the palms, soles, and torso. Skin contact may cause redness and swelling. Ingestion can increase skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer risks. Ingesting very high levels can result in death.

  • Cadmium (Cd) is a by-product of zinc, lead, or copper mining. Workers can be exposed through cadmium smelting and refining or through the air in workplaces that make Cd-based semiconductors. Acute symptoms vary depending on the specific cadmium compound, but can include pulmonary edema, cough, chest tightening, headache, chills, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cd is chronically toxic to the respiratory system, kidneys, prostate, and blood and can cause prostate and lung cancer. NIOSH considers cadmium dust and vapors as carcinogens. California has also determined (under AB 1807 and Proposition 65) that cadmium and cadmium compounds are carcinogens.

  • Chromium VI (Cr VI) is used in PV modules for chrome-plated hardware such as screws and frames. High levels of chromium have provoked asthma attacks, and long-term exposure is associated with lung cancer. Handling liquids or solids containing Cr VI can cause skin ulcers. Swallowing large amounts will cause upset stomach, ulcers, convulsions, kidney and liver damage, and even death. The EPA classifies Cr VI as a known human carcinogen.

  • Hexafluoroethane (C2F6) is used to etch semiconductors. It is an asphyxiant and in high concentrations may cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, disorientation, confusion, loss of coordination, and narcosis. Very high concentrations may cause suffocation. Liquid hexafluoroethane may cause frostbite. Harmful amounts may be absorbed if skin contact is prolonged or widespread. It is listed as a potent greenhouse gas by the IPCC.

  • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) is used to clean reactors and etch polysilicon semiconductors. It emits toxic fumes when burned or reacted and can cause asphyxiation. The IPCC considers NF3 a significant greenhouse gas, making fugitive emission control very important.

  • Selenium (Se) is found in CIS/CIGS as an alloy of diselenide. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of selenium may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Chronic exposure to high concentrations of selenium compounds can produce a disease called selenosis. Major signs of selenosis are hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological abnormalities (such as numbness and other odd sensations in the extremities). Brief exposures to high levels of Se can result in respiratory tract irritation, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, and stomach pains.

  • Silane (SiH4) gas is used to apply silicon thin films and make silicon crystal semiconductors. Major health hazards include respiratory tract, skin, and eye irritation. Silane gas is extremely explosive. At room temperature, silane is pyrophoric-it spontaneously combusts in air without external ignition.

  • Tetrobromo bisphenol A (TBBPA) is a reactive brominated flame retardant used in the printed wiring boards of more than 90 percent of electrical and electronic products. The main use of TBBPA in solar PV is in inverters. Occupational exposure may occur from contact during production or through dust inhalation. Recent concerns focus on TBBPA as an endocrine disruptor; it is similar to bisphenol A, a known estrogen mimic. TBBPA also bioaccumulates in organisms.

Compare this with the byproducts of Coal combustion from the Coal Utilization Byproduct Research:

Each year, the U.S. electric utility industry generates about 100 million tons of coal combustion byproducts. Just over half of this amount is fly ash (a talcum-like solid in the flue gas from a coal-fired boiler), approximately one-fourth is sludge from wet flue gas scrubbers, another 16 percent is boiler ash (a heavier, coarser solid removed from the bottom of a boiler), and about 7 percent is boiler slag (a hard, glassy material made from boiler ash that has been melted by the heat of the combustor).

Currently only about a third of this coal ash and just over one fourth of the scrubber waste is recycled in commercially beneficial uses. The largest amount is fly ash that is typically used as a Portland cement replacement in concrete and concrete products. The remainder, more than 70 million tons a year, is disposed of in impoundments and landfills.

Many experts believe the coal combustion byproducts represent a vastly underused resource. Combustion byproducts can strengthen construction materials and reduce overall product costs. The gypsum-rich byproducts of flue gas scrubbers can provide plants with nutrients and enhance depleted soils in various agricultural applications. Coal combustion byproducts can be used to immobilize hazardous wastes for safer disposal.

Greater use of coal combustion byproducts can also help reduce concerns over greenhouse gases. Using fly ash for cement making, for example, reduces the need for limestone calcination, a process that requires a large amount of heat typically provided by burning fossil fuels. For every ton of fly ash used in concrete, approximately 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide would be prevented from being released into the atmosphere."

Notice how the "Green Solutions" always seem to create more problems and pollution than they could ever be expected to solve?