Paying the polysilicon piper

Are German solar power consumers responsible for toxic waste dumping in Gaolong, China?

Published March 10, 2008 4:54PM (EDT)

Who is ultimately responsible for the poisonous silicon tetrachloride liquid waste being dumped, untreated, in open fields near the town of Gaolong, in Henan province, China? The polysilicon foundry that creates the waste -- four tons of silicon tetrachloride for every ton of purified polysilicon? The lax government that makes no effort to enforce environmental regulations? The solar power photovoltaic panel manufacturer that gobbles up the polysilicon? Or the foreign countries that subsidize the purchase of the panels?

A superb story in Sunday's Washington Post, "Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China," by Ariana Eunjung Cha, details how Chinese attempts to cut corners while boosting production of polysilicon -- a critical ingredient in manufacturing both semiconductors and photovoltaic solar panels -- are resulting in severe environmental consequences.

Getting a polysilicon plant up and running is costly, technology-intense business -- especially if one invests in the environmental protection technology necessary to recycle the silicon tetrachloride. (As How the World Works noted on its very first day of existence, <a href="the "production of polysilicon is a fairly toxic process, so even as renewable use goes up, the environment doesn't come away unscathed.") A five year boom in polysilicon prices has encouraged scores of Chinese companies to fill the supply gap, but, reports Cha, many are doing so while skipping the recycling stage, and thus providing polysilicon at prices far under what foundries in the developed world can manage.

As Cha observes, the sorry state of affairs in Gaolong illustrates some of the paradoxes implicit in trying to move from fossil-based fuels to renewable energy. The environment suffers either way. But there's a kicker, not mentioned in the Post story, provided by Bill Bishop, the CEO of a Beijing-based online virtual world developer who blogs about China at Billsdue. He notes that Luoyang Zhongui is described by the Post as "a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China."

But Shi Zhengrong hasn't gotten rich off of China's surging hunger for energy. A whopping 88 percent of Suntech's revenues come from just two nations -- Germany and Spain. (The United States is responsible for another 7 percent.) In both countries huge subsidies and incentives for renewable energy have spurred demand for solar power. But if you follow the supply chain back to the beginning, those same incentives are resulting in villagers in Henan breathing toxic fumes and watching their crops die. It's something to think about the next time you travel through the terminal at the San Francisco International Airport. Those 3000 new solar panels on the roof were manufactured by Suntech.

Bishop suggests that Germany and Spain refuse to subsidize the purchase of products from companies that can't prove their entire supply chain is environmentally correct. No doubt, some people in the developing and developed world would see any such move as protectionist. But that group is unlikely to include the Chinese villagers who live near Gaolong.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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