Renewable Energy’s Dark Side: Solar Panels and Hazardous Waste

The push for building a clean energy economy has a dark side: the hazardous waste generated and the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of renewable energy components like solar panels. The factory of one rising star in green energy, Evergreen Solar, operating at only 40% capacity, produced a million pounds of hazardous waste in 2008.

Photo: Jeremy Levine DesignSolar Panels
Solar Panels

“It’s the other side of this whole clean energy push. Even so-called clean manufacturing uses a lot of nasty chemicals.” – Liz Harriman, deputy director of Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell

The amount of hazardous waste generated by Evergreen at its manufacturing plant in Devins last year comes from a report with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The chemicals reported include hydrogen flouride, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide, of which some is treated on-site, and the rest disposed of off-site.

When the plant reaches full capacity (producing 780,000 solar panels per year), the factory may rank in the top three hazardous waste producers in the state.

A spokesman for Evergreen, Chris Lawson, said that the company’s manufacturing process is “green”, and the production of panels by the company has “the smallest carbon footprint and quickest energy payback of any silicon-based manufacturer.”

The upside of the company’s business is the displacement of coal burning electrical generation with energy from the sun, and producing 3/4 of a million panels per year adds up to quite a bit of clean energy potential.

One side effect of being in a manufacturing business which uses toxic chemicals is the possibility of spills, and Evergreen has had a run of four such incidents in the last nine months. While no company is exempt from accidents, a renewable energy company is under tighter scrutiny from both neighbors and the media, even if such spills pose no immediate threat to the environment.

Evergreen Solar is going strong in the market, with an influx of $72.5 million, a new facility in China, and a rising stock price.


About the Author

lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, slacklining, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves good food, with fresh roasted chiles at the top of his list of favorites. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, RebelMouse, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!

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