NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Solar Energy: Dirtier Than We Think

February 14, 2013

Proponents of solar energy often tout that solar panels produce far less pollution than coal or natural gas during energy production. However, solar advocates might not realize how much pollution and waste is created by solar panel manufacturers during the manufacturing process, says

  • The solar panel industry is creating millions of solar panels every year, fueled partly by government incentives and subsidies.
  • More than 46 million pounds of waste was generated from solar companies in California between 2007 and mid-2011.
  • Ninety-four percent of that waste stayed in California but more than 1.3 million pounds of the hazardous waste was shipped to Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
  • One estimate suggests that it would take one to three months of energy production from a solar panel to offset the energy expenditures in driving those 1.3 million pounds of hazardous waste to other states.

The solar industry fears that the issue of the waste being produced to manufacture solar panels could undermine the green image of the solar industry. Despite anticipated Chinese competition, solar production has expanded rapidly in the United States, which was a net exporter in 2010.

  • New companies frequently export waste because they have not yet established on-site waste treatment equipment.
  • California, which produces the most solar panels, mandates that industrial plants report how much waste they are producing, but an Associated Press report indicates that only 17 of 41 solar panel manufacturers in the state report their waste.
  • Following the failure of Solyndra, increased scrutiny of the solar industry has shown that many companies have created millions of pounds of waste without selling any panels.

While the 20 year life of a solar panel still makes it the cleanest energy producing method, shipping hazardous waste, which is usually generated from water runoff in the production process, can add significantly to the carbon footprint of a product.  Environmental advocates argue for more transparency in and adherence to the industry's reporting requirements given that the vast majority of solar companies have not been cited for pollution violations.

Source: Jason Dearen, "The Dirty Side of Clean Solar Energy,", February 11, 2013.


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