According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the gas sulfur hexafluoride, commonly employed to clean reactors in silicon production, is considered by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change to be "the most potent greenhouse gas per molecule; one ton of sulfur hexafluoride has a greenhouse effect equivalent to that of 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide."
The manufacturing of solar power panels consumes a lot of silicon, presenting us with a nasty paradox. If solar power production is ramped up as part of a global effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning fossil fuels, the chances of accidental releases of sulfur hexafluoride in the silicon production process will only increase, which, says the SVTC, could "greatly undermine the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions gained by using solar power."
Such depressing nuggets can be found aplenty in the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's new report, "Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry." Building largely on its longtime work monitoring the health and safety dangers associated with the semiconductor industry, the SVTC compellingly documents the dangers to both workers in the solar power industry and the environment at large from the use of a wide array of toxic chemicals currently employed to manufacture silicon and all forms of solar power.
Some of the SVTC's conclusions are no-brainers. The European Union has already passed strict regulations restricting the use of hazardous chemicals in high-tech devices and requiring employers to take life-cycle responsibility for their products. (Silicon photovoltaic panels have a lifespan of 20-25 years -- we do not want them ending up in landfills where their component chemicals will leach into groundwater.)
The U.S., as usual, is far behind. Even in California, which has some of the strictest laws in the United States concerning hazardous waste control, the growth of the solar power industry has not been accompanied by legislation ensuring that so-called green power is green from the beginning of the manufacturing cycle to the end.
Of the 73 bills related to the solar PV industry that were introduced in the California Legislature during 2007 and 2008, none addressed the manufacturing or end-of-life hazards discussed in this report. Most of the bills focused on installation targets and tax incentives/rebates for photovoltaic adoption.
Some of the recommendations will be more difficult to implement. The SVTC wants all manufacturers to follow a "precautionary approach" by proving that all new manufacturing processes are safe, before implementing them on the production line. U.S. manufacturers will fight any regulatory requirement to adhere to precautionary principles to their dying breath, and in the current economic climate, it is doubtful that the Obama administration will start crusading on this issue.
But it should. Drug companies are required to prove their drugs are safe before selling them to humans. Why shouldn't solar panel manufacturers prove their new, fancy-pants nanotechnological processes are equally harmless?