Do solar panels leak chemicals?

Solar panels contain only “solid-state” materials, as do the electronic components of laptops and smartphones. They do not contain liquids that can “drip”. Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking the entire panel. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.

According to cancer biologist David H. Nguyen, PhD, toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium telluride, copper and indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di), cadmium selenide (di), cadmium selenide (di), selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead and polyvinyl fluoride. Silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of crystalline silicon production, is also highly toxic. The fact that rainwater can remove cadmium from solar modules is of increasing concern to local environmentalists, such as Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake, Virginia, where they intend to build a 6,350-acre solar park to partially power Microsoft's data centers.

Whatever the case, it will be exciting to see what innovative ways there will be to treat older solar panels. The first step is to pay a fee for the purchase of solar panels to ensure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is included in the price of solar panels and is not externalized to future taxpayers. If the price of a new panel isn't much higher and its efficiency is significantly higher, consumers are more likely to shell out a little more to get more bang for their buck. That claim has been refuted by the Stuttgart research scientists mentioned above, who discovered that cadmium from solar panels “can be almost completely eliminated”.

They have developed a special technique to extract as much valuable materials as possible from photovoltaic solar panels. Another angle of attack to address the growing problem of photovoltaic panel waste is to find a way to reuse, rather than recycle or dispose of, old panels. Since they were first introduced in the 2000s, literally tons of solar panels are reaching the end of their useful life. According to experts, governments in poor and developing countries are often not equipped to deal with the influx of toxic solar waste.

While reports of the impending solar waste crisis are alarming, strategies are already being developed to address it. While the actual process of converting sunlight into electricity may be considered environmentally friendly, there are other problems with solar panels that are not normally considered. And when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, the country's second-largest solar farm, responsible for 40 percent of the island's solar energy, lost most of its panels. There is a growing public awareness that so-called environmentally friendly energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, aren't so environmentally friendly after all.

Since little or no significant vegetation is allowed to grow around the panels (as this would obviously cast shadows on the panels), this can cause a significant increase in soil erosion and surface runoff. If incentives can be extended to old panels or other benefits derived from installing new panels (guarantees, certifications, etc.), only then will it be possible to achieve a healthy market for them.

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