How toxic are solar panels?

Concerns have been expressed recently about pollution from solar panels both during the manufacturing process and when they reach the end of their usable lives.

The manufacture of panels frequently involves toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury as well as producing CO2. However, a recent study found that due to the heavy metal content of fossil fuels, if we were to switch entirely from fossil to solar, overall there would still be a 90% reduction of pollution released into the atmosphere. A recently developed panel, based on cadmium telluride, produces 300x less emissions in its manufacture when directly compared to coal power plants according to Vasilis Fthenakis, from Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA.

Another issue discussed in solar panel manufacture is by-products such as hydrochloric acid. In factories in Europe and America all by-products are recycled. In countries such as China, where there are not so many rules, problems have been reported with toxic waste. These troubles are a symptom of economic corner-cutting and by no means isolated to the solar industry. A simple remedy to ensure solar panel manufacture with minimal pollution, is for companies to only accept sources of materials where there are stringent standards in place, thus placing economic pressure on factories to develop effective waste management.

A further concern is the safe disposal of panels containing toxic material at the end of their useful lives. However, the risk of pollution is far lower than that caused by household electrical goods due to the fact that solar panels are removed by trained professionals. A solar panel is effective for over 20 years, so adequate recycling facilities can be developed to meet the increasing demand. With disposal now more important, recycling technology can now be developed alongside solar technology so that sustainability can be guaranteed from the outset.