While the development of alternate power sources is critical for our future, I find that sometimes the general public is misinformed or under-informed when it comes to the science behind the technology. The general public knows little about photo-voltaic (PV) panels and exactly how they are produced and what sort of waste streams are left behind in the process. They only know what they are told by the government or "green community" about this "freely abundant" and "sustainable" power source and how it can improve ones "carbon footprint". They know that they can get subsidies to put them on top of their house or business for nearly no upfront cost, and then enjoy "free" energy and tax credits for a lifetime. They have little knowledge of the science behind it, or the environmental impact of the processes necessary to produce it, and in the future to dispose of or recycle it.
What this article points out is that the manufacturing of solar panels (and by the way the inverters that convert the DC output to usable voltage and current in one's house) can be quite a dirty and energy-guzzling process. And while this is true of nearly every type of power source, quite often this reality is not factored into the "carbon footprint" of the PV technology when comparing it to other forms of energy production, especially fossil fuels (oil, gas, clean coal).
While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.
To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.
The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar's carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product's impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.
Another disturbing revelation in this article is the lack of transparency in the PV industry when it comes to what is being done with these waste streams.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a watchdog group created in 1982 in response to severe environmental problems associated with the valley's electronics industry, is now trying to keep the solar industry from making similar mistakes through a voluntary waste reporting "scorecard." So far, only 14 of 114 companies contacted have replied. Those 14 were larger firms that comprised 51-percent of the solar market share.
"We find the overall industry response rate to our request for environmental information to be pretty dismal for an industry that is considered 'green,'" the group's executive director, Sheila Davis, said in an email.
What this article fails to mention is the "waste" problem that will be created when these solar panels reach the end of their useful life in 20 to 30 years. The recycling of massive quantities of photovoltaic panels and components will be a very complicated, energy consuming, dirty, and costly endeavor, which again is rarely factored into the "carbon footprint" or "sustainability" equation of that energy source.
We must take the time to carefully consider the end of life treatment of PV panels. Just as with the full speed ahead push to use compact fluorescent (CFLs) "twisty bulbs", which are now causing serious waste concerns due to the mercury and other chemicals in these lamps as they are being discarded at their end of useful life, we must be cognizant of what lays ahead with the push for PV.
Your thoughts and comments on this are welcomed.