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The Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels Manufacturing

By 3p Contributor

By Scott Cramer

Although the use of solar panels is green, many solar panel manufacturing processes are not. To create a solar panel, caustic materials will emit greenhouse gases.

Silicon Tetra-chloride In Solar Panel Manufacturing

To create solar panels, silicon is purified into poly-silicon. The problem is that the refinement process also produces liquid silicon tetra-chloride. If this was in a small amount, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal, but the tetra-chloride production is a 4 to 1 ratio.

Recycling Silicon tetra-chloride produces more poly-silicon. However, the equipment needed is expensive. As a result, not all plants recycle. When silicon tetra-chloride is mixed with water it becomes very dangerous.

What You Can Do to Help Solve the Problem with Solar

Silicon tetra-chloride is not the only byproduct of solar panel production that is harmful to the Utah and Reno Nevada areas we serve. But there are some processes in place to treat these toxic wastes. These processes, however, are expensive and most manufacturers aren’t required to follow them.

Supporting manufacturers that are taking these expensive precautionary measures will help reduce toxins. As of right now, there isn’t an easy eco-label to help customers, but there is a volunteer-based database.

This database, solar scorecard, rates major manufacturers that have volunteered information.  Although there is a new scorecard each year, the same companies are not always on it. The average 2016-2017 score was 36. Choosing a manufacturer with a high-to-average score will help make a change in the level of impact the Earth and, you, have in helping the planet go green.

Go Solar Group Uses Axitec panels for both their Utah and Nevada installs. When Axitec last participated, they received a score of 55. This means we hold ourselves to a higher-than-average standard in not just panel quality, but the manufacturing process of those panels.

Solar Panels Recycling Process

Now that you have decided on an eco-friendly manufacturer, it is time to consider recycling. Your system will last 25 plus years, but at the end of that life cycle, they need proper disposal.

Recycling Issues in the United States

In Europe, they have a successful recycling program underway. The problem is that recycling in Europe is a requirement. The United States, on the other hand, has an unregulated market. This means that recycling has to be cost-effective for people to do it. Because less than 11% of each panel has salvageable metals there isn’t much money in recycling.

This has made PV recycling a bit of a challenge in the US. The big boom for solar installations began in 2010 for the United States. This means that most Americans won’t need to worry about recycling until 2035, but even today there is a need for it. While most solar panels aren’t losing their efficiency yet they can get damaged. Damaged panels need proper recycling today, not in 17 years.

The United States Current Solar PV Recycling Programs

Although nationally mandated programs don’t exist states are trying to require PV recycling. In 2021 Washington will start requiring manufacturers to have end-of-life recycling programs.

Recycle PV is a recycling company that services the whole nation. If you have panels that have reached the end of their life, but there is no broken glass they will pay you to recycle them. If your panels are broken they still need to be recycled and so for a fee, they will take them.

SEIA also has a national recycling program. They partnered with ECS Refining, Green Century Recycling, Cleanlites Recycling, and First Solar. As time goes on, they hope to partner with more PV recyclers.

How Much Does It Cost to Recycle Solar Panels?

As mentioned above, recycling solar does cost money. The price depends on the type of solar panels are involved and how many. Most of these recycling programs are between the recycler and the solar panels manufacturer. If your solar panels manufacturer doesn’t recycle, you can call the recycling company directly. As time goes on and more solar panels are recycled, the price will decrease.

There’s an argument to be made about which generation is more likely to know how to be environmentally friendly. While Nielsen reports that sustainability is driving the millennial generation, Trulia found that older generations reportedly may know how to go green more effectively.

While more millennial citizens (24 percent) strongly agree to being an environmentally conscious person versus 19 percent of baby boomers, only 34 percent of millennials take action other than recycling compared to 44 percent of baby boomers.

Some of those eco-friendly activities from an older generation include a wide range of green activities such as buying energy efficient appliances and energy efficient home upgrades.

While economics may be a determining factor in just how active a person can be in going green, there are plenty of economical ways to participate more. Here are some suggestions.

Lights: Whether moving into a new apartment or home or already living there, take a look at the ceiling and lamp lights currently running. If you’re unfamiliar with eco-friendly living, light bulbs are a significant way to start the process.

Popular light bulbs such as the Philips LEDs use 90 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lights. While they may initially cost a bit more, incandescent light bulbs can last up to 22 years, which is about the lifetime of 25 incandescent light bulbs.

And during the day when lights aren’t needed, consider opening the blinds to let natural sunlight inside. With daylight savings time ending and beginning, there are times when the day will be lighter for a longer period of time. Take that into account when setting those light timers.

Minimize electronic appliance usage: Earth Hour falls in March, Earth Day in April. Whether you choose to dedicate the entire day or one hour, just consider unplugging all electronic appliances for one hour.

There are reportedly 172 countries and territories worldwide who will join you. And by turning off all electronic appliances and then slowly plugging them as you need them once the hour is up, it’s safe to say you’ll find that some of the appliances you used to keep plugged may not be as necessarily on a day-to-day basis. Homeowners using a gas stove instead of an electric stove may help, too.

Insulation: In cold-weather climates, it may be easier to just turn the heat up. But consider insulating your home to keep warm weather in during cold months and warm weather out during hot months.

Windows and window treatments are an easy fix to create a comfortable home environment and could lower the usage of energy drainers such as air conditioners and ceiling or mobile fans. Investing in a smart thermostat may also help.

Shorten water usage: Avoid wasting water while taking a shower. In the U.S., approximately 17 percent of home water usage is from showers and that can amount to 100 gallons of water daily.

Actually getting into the shower as soon as the water is on as opposed to letting the water run until it reaches a certain temperature or doing other bathroom duties (brushing your teeth and combing your hair) can conserve thousands of gallons of water.

Shortening a shower to a couple of minutes will also help conserve water and decrease your power bill. Keep water usage in mind when it comes to cold water wash cycles and watering the lawn, too.

Solar Power Reduces Pollution

Travel smart: Not only can opting for a bike over a car create an eco-friendly environment, but it also improves health. If a car is necessary for travel, consider public transportation and/or carpooling over driving separately.

Ride-sharing companies are another way to showcase how to be green, specifically by utilizing the “pool” riding option on your smartphone apps.

Plant trees: Referring back to light usage, planting trees is not only a good way to stay fit in gardening but also a way to potentially control the heat or need for air conditioning in your own home.

Gardening can also significantly reduce the grocery bill and shrink a waist line if the plants include fruit and vegetables. The meat industry alone contributes to one-fifth of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Meatless Monday participants, even those who aren’t vegans or vegetarians, are also a highly recommended way to learn what does it mean to go green, specifically when it comes to decreasing pollution related to animal agriculture wastes.

Recycle: In addition to sorting recyclables from non-recyclables, opt out of purchasing disposable plastics. Keep recyclable grocery bags in the trunk of your car, tote bag and/or bicycle basket to make more use of the bags and/or food containers you already have when visiting restaurants or grocery stores.

No wood-burning: While that electric or wood fireplace may look pretty, unfortunately it can also contain 100 different compounds that contribute to pollution. Consider solar energy to warm your home, cabin or office instead.

Solar Saves You Money

Bulk food pricing: For bigger families, buying food in bulk may seem only logical. However, even for single families, buying food in bulk will save money and utilize less waste — one of many benefits of going green.

Something as simple as buying a bigger container of ketchup instead of a purse-sized version, specifically if you know you use a condiment item like this on a regular basis, helps to conserve plastic. Or, opt for glass instead.

Solar home investment: Homeowners and/or business owners installing a system of solar panels onto their property roofs gives them the opportunity to control how the sun affects them.

To help further explain what is green energy, photovoltaic technology releases electrons that create direct current (DC) electricity. Those solar panels will convert DC electricity into alternating current (AC) electricity, which helps your utility service export surplus energy and import power when needed.

Opting for solar panels will also provide a fixed rate for utility bills because homeowners and business owners will be able to predict their everyday usage.

By learning more about everyday buying habits, home usage, business usage and electronic habits, groups from all ages can improve on helping to fight against carbon pollution.

And the more people who participate in one or more of the suggestions above, the more like you may be able to influence another millennial or baby boomer along the way.

Hazardous waste makes recycling solar panels necessary the question is when and how. If solar arrays aren’t recycled they will end up in landfills and toxins in the panels could leach out. We need to manage these materials both at the beginning and end of each solar panel life cycle.

Scott Cramer is President, Go Solar Group

Photo: Go Solar

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