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How Can the Solar Energy Industry Be More Sustainable?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Wednesday February 25th, 2009 | 1 Comment

180px-Solar_Array.jpg Solar power is generally viewed as a viable alternative to fossil-fuel powered energy, but Solar PVs panels are made of toxic materials, some of which are hard to recycle. In 20 to 25 years, solar PV panels will reach the end of their product life and create a tremendous amount of waste. Making solar PV panels requires a tremendous amount of energy usage. Although solar energy at present only provides 1/10th of one percent of U.S. energy, it is estimated that it will grow. What can the solar industry do to make itself more sustainable?
In January, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition released a study titled, Toward A Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry. The report listed six recommendations for the solar energy industry:
1. Reduce the use of toxic materials with the goal of eliminating them while developing environmentally sustainable practices.
2. Implement an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to ensure that solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the product’s impact on the environment. Implement an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to ensure that solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the product’s impact on the environment.
3. Use a precautionary approach when testing new materials and processes.
4. Design products so they can be easily recycled, and expand recycling technology.
5. Promote jobs in the solar energy industry which protect a worker’s health and safety, plus provide a living wage.
6. Protect health and safety in the global solar energy industry.


In response to these recommendations, several companies have adopted their own best practices to create cradle-to-grave processes, including Tempe, AZ based First Solar Inc. The manufacturer of thin-film PV modules, developed a cradle-to-grave recycling process. The recycling process consists of six steps:
1. For every module sold, First Solar matches the funds needed to collect and recycle materials.
2. The site location of each module installation is registered with the company.
3. Every module is labeled with website and telephone contact information in six different languages.
4. The company provides packaging and transportation to the recycling center for its modules.
5. The recycling processes are monitored by the company to ensure compliance with local regulations.
6. This process is continuously audited to ensure improvement.
Solar Thermal Power
Solar thermal power creates heat through the use of lenses and reflectors which concentrate solar energy. The heat can be stored, so solar thermal plants can always generate electricity. Solar thermal power makes it possible to use solar energy to create panels. Scientists calculated that the environmental burden could be cut in half if factories were powered by solar energy.
There is an added bonus to solar thermal energy: it creates two and one-half times more jobs than power plants using fossil fuels. It also generates more tax revenue (federal, state, and local), according to a California Energy Commission study.
Hawaiian based Sopogy makes rooftop solar thermal systems instead of farms which require a sizable amount of land. The cost of building a plant is cut as a result. The company will build the largest solar thermal power plant, a 50-megawatt plant, in Spain. The plant could create enough energy to power 15,000 homes. It is scheduled for completion in December 2010.
The financial crisis has caused the development of renewable energy projects to slow, but the lower cost of Sopogy’s rooftop solar thermal systems could prove to be attractive to investors. As Sopogy’s founder and CEO Darren Kimura put it, the solar power industry has to “focus on markets that incentivize the use of solar technology.”


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