Most people believe that solar technology is clean and good for the environment. For sure, the vision of a solar farm is one free from fumes, chemical disposal equipment, noises, and odors. What normal person would look at solar farms and not come away believing that this technology is good for the Earth?
Unfortunately, when it comes to solar technology it is the unseen which threatens our water and environment. There are many intricate pieces to this conversation, but let me initiate things by illustrating how toxic the manufacturing of solar panels really is.
The parts of solar panels that actually collect energy, transfer it, convert it to usable AC current and control the arrays are electronic in nature. As such, these components are manufactured using precious, limited, and also toxic metals. When the average person hears the word “metals” they think of steel; things like tools, wheel rims, flatware, and other common metal objects. However, in the chemical world, metals include things like copper, nickel, lead, cadmium, zinc, and other elemental metals.
Solar manufacturing requires great amounts of these metals in the etching, plating and rinsing process, and at the end of the manufacturing day, creates great volumes of metal-bearing water that is classified as F006 hazardous waste. California is but one state drowning in this water, and constantly seeking ways to ship it to the few places in America that can process the water and reclaim the metals.
Now, let’s look at the big picture of solar energy conversion.
All of Earth’s resources come to us in a fixed, limited amount. This includes the metals used in solar panels. As elements like copper, lead, chromium, germanium, iron, and others become more scarce, not only do their costs go up, but we have to mine deeper and more aggressively into new areas to find them. More severe mining means more risk to our water. Our having to ship ever-increasing amounts of F006 hazardous waste for processing also increases our health risks to carcinogenic/harmful chemicals from inevitable spills and accidents. The takeaway?
In our zeal to do the right thing, we can no longer afford just to look at the up-side of new technologies that we think are cleaner. In too many cases, things we think are good for us, in the long run, because those on the bandwagon refused to listen to the downside, often turn out to be devastating to our health and our loved ones.
Remember, thalidomide, DDT, asbestos and lead paint were all technologies that people at the time celebrated as the “new” technical future of man. I am here to tell you, the venomous fruits of solar technology will one day cause us similar ills; starting with our water.