News Articles & Press


Solar PV Industry Faces Toxic Challenge

By Roy L Hales and Robert Lundahl

Do you remember those stories about Jinko Solar Holding, Inc contaminating a stream in eastern China with toxic waste from one of its solar panel factories? They had been piling it outside and a torrential rain carried some into the stream. Soon there large numbers of dead fish, the local environmental protection bureau found excessive levels of fluoride in the water and 500 people started protesting outside the factory. What are the chances that such scenes could be coming to California?

One of the problems is a substance called gallium arsenide.

An insider who I am going to call George, though that is not his real name, phoned film maker Robert Lundahl – who contacted me. George works in a solar PV factory solar that uses gallium arsenide, which he said is highly toxic. So Robert and I started googling gallium arsenide. We discovered that:

The problem, from George’s perspective, is that his factory does not know what to do with the solar panels once their lifespan expires. If this is not done properly, the gallium arsenide will be released into the environment.

George is totally disillusioned with his employers, who says are not “green” at all.

“They don’t even recycle!”

George will probably quit his job.

As I listened, I found myself wondering if solar panels are just as bad as the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace? Speaking as someone who has frequently endorsed rooftop solar, this is not the type of story I wanted to hear or investigate. It made me feel like running off to some remote island, except that I already live on a remote island. (I’m a “drone” editor/writer, which is another story.)

I obtained another perspective from Gerry Winstead, from  at ECS Refining in Santa Clara. He confirmed that there are toxins, such as gallium arsenide,  in solar modules, especially the new thin film ones, and said the Department of Toxic Substances Control will soon be issuing stricter regulations. ECS will probably be able to continue handling the old style panels, but will have to ship the new ones out to the newer ones off to a plant in Texas.

When I asked how many solar panels end up in landfills, Winstead said not that much. Most solar companies – he did not say all – are environmentally conscious and recycle.

“My company recycles nothing, not even paper,” George said. “Solar companies are allowed to dispose of Gallium Arsenide and other carcinogens legally in local landfills. Recycling them, is not cost efficient. My company recycles nothing, not even paper.”

George said that his company sends 10,000 pounds of solar ewaste, containing toxins such as gallium arsenide and multiple cadmium compounds, every month. Under current regulations solar modules are not considered hazardous unless the cells are broken. He asks, how long do you think it will take before the glass is broken? or bonding agents deteriorate?  How long before those toxins leech into the soil? into the water table?

“The law in CA, generally the most stringent in nation is about to outlaw recycling of solar ewaste (solar cell wafer in CPV),” George said. “This means power plant owners will pay thousands per load to truck it out of state for recycling.”

He does not believe this will happen.

Jessica M Smith wrote about one of the foremost companies that utilize gallium arsenide , on the page 795 of the Sept 2012 MRS Bulletin, “In Alta Devices, the toxic element of concern is arsenide. Atwater said that, increasingly, solar companies do recycle part of their solar cells. He said, “I imagine Alta will follow suit as a responsible corporate citizen.” Given the challenges facing solar startups, considering a recycling policy before launching a pilot line may seem optimistic. Luckily, the founders of Alta Devices seem to overflow with optimism. Given the challenges facing solar startups, considering a recycling policy before launching a pilot line may seem optimistic …”

Given that we are dealing with a material that was labelled carcinogenic three decades ago, to proceed without a recycling program in place seems reckless!

According to the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition (SVTC), “Today’s solar PV sector bears striking similarities to the emerging electronics industry of the 1980s, when supposedly “clean” manufacturing plants polluted Silicon Valley groundwater, causing death and illness in nearby communities. The high-tech industry’s failure to plan for safe end-of-life product disposal has resulted in a global flood of electronic waste (e-waste). The U.S. generates an estimated 2.2 million tons of e-waste annually, and this will continue to grow with the industry’s rapid rate of technological change.i U.S. e-waste is currently shipped to the poorest parts of the world for manual disassembly and recovery of valuable scrap materials. It is anticipated that in 30 years the world’s poorest in cities like Nairobi, Delhi, and Manila (and also in U.S. prisons) may be sorting our solar PV waste.”

“ …. With the solar PV sector still emerging, we have a limited window of opportunity to address both manufacturing and end-of-life issues and create a truly clean and sustainable solar energy sector. Our failure to do so will risk repeating the disastrous environmental legacy of the electronics industry.”

After dealing with similar issues for the past 25 years in electronics, the SVTC is launching the Clean and Just Solar Industry initiative. Their goal is to ensure that:

  1. Solar PV manufacturers implement programs to take back decommissioned solar panels and recycle the panels responsibly.

  2. Manufacturers address potential end-of-life hazards in the product design and production processes. Requiring manufacturers to take back their own panels will create incentives to design products that can be recycled in a safe and cost-effective manner.

  3. Solar PV manufacturers work to eliminate the use of materials that are hazardous to human health and to the environment.

  4. Solar sector jobs are “green jobs” throughout the supply chain, and workers are treated in a socially just manner. The minimum acceptable guidelines would be those outlined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  5. Workers and communities are not exposed to harmful materials in the manufacturing, use, disposal, and recycling of PV products.

These are all worthy goals which, if met, would ensure that the solar industry becomes everything we hoped it would be.

If you want to know more about the the SVTC  and its views, click on this link: 

Robert is going to tell George.

[The article above is a collaboration between Robert Lundahl & Roy L Hales; some steps were taken to conceal George’s identity.]

Robert Lundahl