Alternative Energy

Published on July 10th, 2009 | by Derek Markham

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.

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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!

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

  1. TheEnergyMiser says:

    Derek, your piece reads more like a “hit piece” on Evergreen Solar. As PV companies go, they are of the more responsible. For example, they do not use lead in their panels and their string ribbon tech is the most energy efficient manufacturing process of any of the solar module makers.

    And, they are a relatively small producer. If you want to talk about hazwaste look at the big suppliers and makers that make all their panels in China (so they don’t have to deal with the environmental regulations).

    Sharp, Sanyo, Sunpower, Suntech, etc. etc. etc. Evergreen is about 15th on the list of solar panel makers.


  2. Mark –

    I just re-read the post, based on your comment, and you’re right, it does appear rather negative toward Evergreen. I know there are other polluters in renewables (and yeah, China is really bad about toxic manufacturing processes/waste).

    I just picked up on a report saying that Evergreen is on its way to being MA’s top hazardous waste producers, and that was the seed for the article. I’ll work on a bigger picture post that doesn’t pick on one company by name.

    I notice that you’re in solar installation – Who would you say is the cleanest?

  3. solar panels says:

    I am surprised that The chemicals reported include hydrogen flouride, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and sodium hydroxide.

  4. Barry Solar says:

    I read it as a dig on Evergreen too. But stepping above that I agree that there are a lot of nasty stuff used in most modern industrys, including Solar. Solar Panels even have Oil as a component. Coal is/was no better, waste was thrown in to the oceans creating a layer of “cement” covering everything in sight.

    The benefit of Solar is the operating waste is practically nill.

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