| Ford Church

How Green are Solar Panels?

In many circumstances, the products we use in our efforts to be more
sustainable have a bigger footprint than we think. Recent articles in
the Washington Post and from the Worldwatch Institute
show how the production of large amounts of polysilicon in China are
dumping toxic wastes on the surrounding landscape—the homes of poor
Chinese villagers. The byproducts from these industrial processes
include silicon tetrachloride, which ruins the soil chemistry and
releases poisonous fumes. The situation is ironically inconsistent with
the end use of this valuable product, which is usually for photovoltaic
solar panels, which turn solar energy into "green, renewable"
electricity. This is actually only one example of the ways that efforts
by the developed world to become sustainable only result in more
environmental degradation and socio-economic disparities.

situation in [one Chinese] village points to the environmental
trade-offs the world is making as it races to head off a dwindling
supply of fossil fuels. Forests are being cleared to grow biofuels like
palm oil, but scientists argue that the disappearance of such huge
swaths of forests is contributing to climate change. Hydropower dams
are being constructed to replace coal-fired power plants, but they are
submerging whole ecosystems under water. –washingtonpost.com

polysilicon is extremely profitable due to high demand, and the Chinese
manufacturers are increasing their profits by refusing to invest in
recycling technology, which is available now. The manufacturers
apparently have the law on their side. They maintain that their
practices are in keeping with all Chinese environmental restrictions,
and while formal complaints have been made to portions of the
government responsible for environmental protection, no action has been

Guiding Questions:

To what extent is the industrial production of a product the
responsibility of the various stake holders: the government, the
impacted villagers, the company producing the material, the companies
that buy the materials to produce the  end product, and the eventual
consumer? Also, what can a potential consumer (or just a concerned
individual) in the US do to oppose this kind of situation?

Categories: Cottonwood Institute News

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4 Responses to “How Green are Solar Panels?”

  1. Ford Church

    Eric, thanks so much for bringing this to our attention. It reminds me of what McDonough and Braungart talk about in Cradle to Cradle. We need to re-design the manufacturing process to eliminate waste. We have the knowledge, we have the technology, so what are we waiting for? Recycling programs or waste reduction programs are not necessarily the answer because it only promotes being “less bad” as they say.

    In terms of the responsibility, we all have a responsibility. Governments have a role to enforce environmental regulations and impose stiff fines, businesses have a responsibility to retool their manufacturing process to eliminate waste, and consumers need to demand products that are produced in a sustainable and responsible manner.

  2. Jamie S. Dent

    One of the thoughts that comes to my mind on this is: Are the long term benefits of producing and harnessing solar energy more cost productive and less of an environmental impact than mining and burning coal. Is the waste produced from this process, less compared to the process of producing electricity from fossil fuels?

    The demand for solar panels is beyond production. Here is a solution, stop exporting production! If we are so concerned with the effects of laws and envornmental morals in other countries, let’s do this our selves; create jobs; reduce cost and emulate environmental responsibility.

    Of course, just a thought.

  3. Eric Ellison

    Yeah, I think both of your responses highlight good systems to examine, as well as some of the underlying problems: in terms of redesigning the whole process to go beyond the “less bad” options to the good options, who is supposed to direct that and make it happen? If it is to happen within the current system (in other words, a new paradigm of industrial processes grows out of the free market, supplying a demand, and an evolution of the infrastructure without revolution) then it is likely to be a slow process, where we wait around for everyone else to realize—waiting for the tipping point. So what’s the other option? We don’t have time to wait for mass consciousness to shift. I think this reminds those of us who consider ourselves activists to wake up in the morning and set the intention, every day, to try to be just a little louder in the global “What next?” discussion. All it’s going to take is a little participation!

  4. carol

    Yes, we really need to think about this! Most studies go on about how much better solar is in terms of air pollution, but what about contamination of ground water? Solar panels are basically computer technology and computer technology is very polluting to the ground water, even under U.S. regulation, which is not nearly as stringent as most people think. Our regulations ignore most carcinogens; meanwhile our cancer rates continue to climb. Sometimes I wonder if one day, we’ll look back on a lot of expensive solar infrastructure and think, whoa! too bad we didn’t know it would end up like this! As we have done with cars, highways, fossil fuels, computers…everything really.
    We are quick to slap on a green label and feel self-satified without digging into consequences. All the major oil companies have bought into in solar by now, and the slick marketing for solar is increasing accordingly.


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