Sure, they produce free, clean energy, but few people ever stop to think about the production of the panels themselves. How bad is it? While it’s safe to say that solar energy is certainly not as dangerous as emissions and waste produced by, say, automobiles, or the pollutants produced by coal-fired power plants, the production of solar panels has a dark side as well.
The manufacturing of solar cells requires huge quantities of fossil fuels and much like with other electronics, there are waste metals which are produced during production and are currently presenting disposal problems. Some of these metals include chromium and mercury.
Asia is one of the leaders in the use of solar energy and production of solar panels and there we are starting to see very real problems from the disposal issues surrounding solar panel manufacturing. Along with the rest of the waste the electronics industry generates, which is dumped in incinerators and landfills in developing countries, this is quickly becoming a serious environmental issue. These waste metals which are not disposed of correct can leach into the groundwater and result in toxins in crops grown nearby.
The production of solar panels also requires the use of rare metals, including tellurium. This is a by-product from mined copper and is mostly found in high concentrations in Mexico and China. There has been on-going debate by environmentalists and scientists regarding whether the supply of tellurium will be able to meet the ever-growing needs of the solar-cell production industry, as this metal is also used in other electrical industries, for semi-conductor purposes. It is currently second only to gold in terms of its rarity and consumption has been rising steadily over the past ten years or so. With this the price of tellurium is also rising; it has more than doubled in the last five years. Higher manufacturing costs will of course lead to higher retail prices for consumers interested in purchasing solar panels. Tellurium is often thought to be the ‘holy grail’ element when it comes to photovoltaics, however if this is the case, manufacturers will need to look at ways in which to overcome its scarcity.
Ultimately, it may be fair to say that the net benefit of solar panels outweighs the cost. We will continue to buy consumer electronics anyway, so it’s almost useless to argue that solar panels increase overall waste. It’s just as important to consider that solar panels last as long as 40 years, and in that in that time they pay for themselves (in terms of solar energy produced) many times over. So while there may be a few bad things about solar energy, you’re stilling getting an electronic device that produces free, clean power for your home.