Potential Hazardous Waste Issues Associated with Solar Manufacturing?

A story appeared in today's FuelFix, which is run by the Houston Chronicle, highlighting the large amounts of hazardous waste generated by the solar industry in California. According to a study conducted by the AP that used data from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, 17 of the state's largest 41 solar manufacturers generated over 46 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 to 2011.

The vast majority of the waste, approximately 97 percent, was taken to hazardous waste disposal sites across the state. However, more than 1.4 million pounds was sent to: Arizona, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington. Industry supporters note that sending waste to approved storage facilities is exactly what responsible manufacturers should be doing and that much of the hazardous material or toxics generated to make solar panels and equipment is not being released into the atmosphere like air pollutants associated with coal or natural gas combustion. Further, they contend that solar panels in particular are long-lived assets that can be used for almost 20 years - thus limiting the overall amount of generated waste. Critics of the manufacturers say more should be done about hazardous waste reporting because it damages the reputation of solar power as a green alternative source of energy compared to traditional fossil fuel power plants. Many of the facilities in the AP's report did not sell a single solar panel, as products were being fine-tuned before being sold to consumers, yet were generating substantial amounts of hazardous waste. 

To date, only three companies (according to the AP) have been sited for minor waste-related pollution violations but understanding the scope of the problem on a national level is difficult due to a lack of federal data.

Toxins, metals, and waste material are removed from the water that is used during the manufacturing process for solar equipment. If on-site treatment equipment is not available waste material must be shipped to another approved location, often several miles away from the facility. This added transportation component, according to experts quoted in the article, are usually not taken into account when conducting a life-cycle analysis for greenhouse gas emissions or sustainability. Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose University environmental studies professor, said after installing a solar panel “it would take one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state." For instance, Mulvaney estimated that if a shipment of hazardous waste was put on a tractor-trailer truck by a Silicon Valley solar manufacturer and shipped 1,800 miles away (roughly the distance to Arkansas), it would add 5 percent to a project's carbon footprint.