New Report Sheds Light on Health and Safety Considerations with Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Technologies on the Market

report cover

Many people have asked me lately, "What goes inside solar panels and does any of it pose a health risk?"  A report released today by the corporate watchdog group,  As You Sow , titled, Clean & Green: Best Practices in Photovoltaics, gives a fair and comprehensive overview of the health and safety risks with regard to solar photovoltaic manufacturing and end of life management. The report discusses:

  . . .  in non-scientific language, the process of manufacturing PV panels, the risks involved, and how companies mitigate those risks. It focuses on practices and policies companies use to mitigate risks from hazardous compounds, reduce environmental impact, and responsibly manage their supply chains.

The Industry has Kept a Good Track Record Thus Far

Through an exhaustive and comprehensive sampling of some of the world's largest solar panel manufacturers, the results of the study were impressive; especially when one accounts for the sheer size, scope, geographic diversity and highly competitive nature of the global marketplace for solar. According to the report's author, Amy Galland, Ph.D.:

Solar PV manufacturers as a whole have continued to be ahead of international standards ("ISO") for air emissions at manufacturing sites, are taking steps to reduce water use in order to more efficiently produce panels, and are participating in voluntary international programs that monitor and assess worker safety.  Additional EHS activities that some PV manufacturers are taking include a move toward safer materials in both the manufacture and components of the panels themselves, siting factories in cleaner utility power grids and/or powering a portion of their operations with on-site renewable energy, and reducing waste by designing panels with fully recyclable components that aim to 'close the loop' of solar panel material resource use.

Close Up Look at Panel Components and Manufacturing Processes

Some solar PV technologies contain heavy metals that are considered toxic to humans if ingested in high doses or through prolonged exposure. The most common heavy metals used in a certain type of PV technology, referred to as 'thin film' technology, include cadmium, indium, gallium, and selenium. These metals do not lie within solar panels in their elemental form. Rather, they are chemically bound within the cells of the solar panel, making them considerably less toxic than if they existed as standalone elements in the cells. In addition, the solar panels must pass muster with strict industry standards for panel strength and ability to stand up to environmental elements inlcuding extreme wind, rain, snow, hail, and fire. The solar panel manufacturers interiewed in this report are very aware of these risks and have devised comprehensive procedures with solar developers and maintenance crews to mitigate these risks. 

The Big Picture

It's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.  I.e. why solar, especially when applied on rooftop and disturbed landscapes within the built environment, is an environmentally preferable form of energy production. I think the report explains this distinction quite well:

Even though there are toxic compounds used in the manufacturing of most solar panels, the generation of electricity from solar energy is significantly safer to the environment and workers than production of electricity from coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission. For example, once a solar panel is installed, it generates electricity with zero emissions; whereas in 2010, coal-fired power plants in the United States emitted 1,999.6 million tons of carbon dioxide and there were 13,200 deaths in the U.S. directly attributable to particulates from coal-fired power plants.

These technologies are not without some degree of potential human health risk at both the upstream manufacturing level and downstream level of installers, maintenance crew and customers. The solar industry is doing the right thing by acknowledging the full scope and detail of these potential risks. The companies covered in this report are making good strides toward improving an already strong record of manufacturing safety and efficiency, as well as mitigating potential risks in the downstream installer, maintenance and customer market.