Solar energy, combined with wind turbines here and there, is the future. According to Harvard University, by 2050, the solar energy production of the United States will have increased by 700%. Against the backdrop of improving technology and dropping prices, such predictions are very reasonable indeed.
By that time, solar and wind will likely cover 50% of the world’s energy needs.
How environmentally friendly is solar energy, though? Where are solar panels made and what goes into them? What about the manufacturing process?
- 1. Where Are Solar Panels Made?
- 2. What Materials Go Into Solar Panels? Are These Materials Environmentally Friendly?
- 3. How do Manufacturers Alter Their Technologies/Materials to Become More Environmentally Friendly?
- 4. How Does the Decommissioning/Recycling Process Work?
- 5. Which Countries Are The Top Solar Manufacturers?
- 6. Should You Buy Your Solar Panels Locally?
In this article, we answer those questions and more.
By having those questions answered, you will gain a better understanding of the environmental impact that these renewable energy technologies entail.
Where Are Solar Panels Made?
Specialized factories in locations close to the raw materials needed for production make most solar panels. Most such factories are in China. Thus, the biggest solar panel producers are Chinese as well.
In addition to making the most solar panels in the world, China is also among the biggest solar energy producers. According to Investopedia, in 2014, Germany was the largest solar energy producer. In 2015, however, China became the undisputed leader in solar energy and solar panel production.
According to Forbes.com, Trina Solar used to be one of the biggest solar panel producers in China. It is no longer the top producer, however. According to Solarquotes it shipped 9.7 GW worth of solar panels in 2019. That has ranked it third, behind Jinko Solar and JA Solar.
– Founded in 1997 by Gao Jifran, Trina Solar has proclaimed itself a “solar pioneer”. According to the official site of the company, Trina Solar has broken several world records over its existence. Among these, the solar efficiency record stands out. The company has thus far broken it 20 times.
In 2018 alone, Trina Solar manufactured and delivered solar panels of a nominal capacity of 40GW worldwide.
– Yingli Solar is another major Chinese producer of PV panels. Also founded in 1997, the company has thus far produced some 15 GW worth of solar panels. Together with five other solar panel producers, among them Trina Solar, Yingli makes up the Silicon Module Super League.
– Canadian Solar is another Silicon Module Super League member. Unlike most of its peers, it is not Chinese. Founded in 2001, in Canada, by Shawn Qu, the company is a relative late-comer to the solar table. Over the past 15 years, Canadian Solar has delivered more than 70 million solar panels, totaling some 16 GW of capacity.
– Jinko Solar is another PV panel heavyweight. It is in close contention for the biggest solar panel producer of the world title. In 2018, the company shipped some 11.8 GW worth of solar modules. In 2019, it took the top global spot, with 14.2 GW worth of solar panels shipped. Headquartered in Shanghai, China, Jinko Solar is listed on the New York Stock exchange.
– Like Jinko, JA Solar is also a Shanghai-based company. JA is a solar cell manufacturer that sells its products to panel makers world-over. Thus, many solar panel factories use JA’s cells to build their products.
As this brief listing makes it clear, most solar cell and panel manufacturers are Chinese. Even if you buy from your local producer, chances are it uses Chinese components to build its panels.
Are the processes involved in the manufacturing of these panels environmentally friendly? What is the impact of solar panels on the environment?
To properly assess this impact, we have to look at three areas of concern.
- The energy used during the making of the cells and panels.
- The environmental impact of decommissioned solar panels. What happens with the panels that have reached the end of their exploitable lifetimes?
- Harmful and toxic materials that go into solar cells and panels.
Please note that these areas of concern are not exclusive to PV panels. All electrical equipment carries such an environmental footprint. Producers design most such equipment to last a few years. Unlike most electronic devices, PV panels may last 30 years. In addition to that, they produce electricity. Few other electronic devices can accomplish the same. Let us, therefore, put forth that the environmental footprint of PV panels should be adjusted according to these factors.
The energy used during the manufacturing process depends on the efficiency of the technologies and systems employed by the producer. It is in the interest of the producer to minimize energy consumption during manufacturing.
What Materials Go Into Solar Panels? Are These Materials Environmentally Friendly?
Most of the material that goes into solar panels is silicon. Silicon is not toxic in any of its forms. Specifically, we should mention silica and silicates. Silicon does not seem to accumulate in any organ of the body. It is most abundant in the skin.
While silicon dust may cause chronic respiratory problems, elemental silicon does not cause fibrosis in lung tissue.
Crystalline silica, on the other hand, does cause lung cancer, at doses resulting from occupational exposure. This compound is present in sand, mortar, stone and glass. It is not a concern for solar panel users, however. Breathable particles of it only result from grinding mortar, sawing or cutting brick or concrete blocks, etc.
As far as technology goes:
- Monocrystalline panels are more efficient than polycrystalline ones. They also cost more to make, since they create more silicon waste. Manufacturers slice up silicon ingots to make monocrystalline cells.
- Polycrystalline panels are less efficient. Manufacturers can, however, use the waste resulting from monocrystalline panel production, to make polycrystalline panels. They simply compact the waste, creating mashed-up silicon, which works well in polycrystalline solutions.
- Thin-film panels save the most material. They only need a very thin layer of silicon sprayed onto the surface of the support material.
Although the main raw material used for PV cells is not toxic, the manufacturing process does involve certain toxic and harmful chemicals.
– Solar cell makers use silane gas to create crystalline silicon. In turn, the production of this gas releases silicon tetrachloride, as waste. This substance is toxic. Fortunately, manufacturers can recycle this waste into more silane gas. The question here is whether the factory is willing to recycle silicon tetrachloride. In some cases, the answer is no. This is why it is important that consumers and governments should pressure solar panel companies through regulation into reducing their toxic emissions.
– The manufacturer needs to clean the silicon, the cells and the reactors used in silicon production at various stages of the process. The compounds used for cleaning are mostly toxic or exert greenhouse effects. Sulfur Hexafluoride is one such compound. If it escapes into the air, it becomes a strong greenhouse agent.
– The most concerning chemical used in PV panels is Cadmium. This metal is present in various forms in some solar panels, and it is very toxic. Cadmium Telluride is one of its more frequent forms. Elemental Cadmium is more toxic when Tellurium is not present. It is highly carcinogenic, affecting several organs of the human body. Tellurium stabilizes the compound. According to the Progress in Photovoltaics Journal, however, even Cadmium Telluride caused lung tissue fibrosis and inflammation in rats. Large-dose inhalation proved fatal.
– Cadmium Indium Gallium Selenide is present in solar panels as well. It is not kind to the lungs either. Scientists working for the Journal of Occupational Health studied the effects of CIGS on the lungs of rats. They found the compound to be extremely harmful to lung tissue. One week’s worth of exposure caused spots of inflammation and fluid production in the lungs.
– Copper Indium Selenide (CIS) is another dangerous PV panel compound. Rat studies have found CIS to be harmful to lung tissue. Besides fibrosis and inflammation, CIS also triggered abnormal growth in the lungs of lab rats.
– Lead, aluminum, and silver. Lead-based soldering is a potential problem in PV panels. The lead can leech into the environment after disposal of the panels. Some solar panel makers have moved past lead-based soldering technology, however.
Most electronic devices contain some of the discussed materials, so not all are exclusive to solar panels.
How do Manufacturers Alter Their Technologies/Materials to Become More Environmentally Friendly?
Solar panel manufacturers can tweak their technologies here and there to eliminate harmful materials and prevent the release of toxic gases/materials.
They can adopt lead-free soldering, to eliminate lead. They can recycle silicon tetrachloride. Most importantly, however, they can assume a role in the recycling of decommissioned solar panels.
In the solar industry/environment equation, there are two main actors: governments and manufacturers.
– Governments can regulate the amount of hazardous materials in solar panels through laws. The EU’s ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) specifies that lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd) are hazardous substances and it regulates them. According to the directive, the cadmium content of solar panels cannot be more than 0.01 percent by weight. For lead, this limit is 0.1%.
In addition to such regulation, governments can also require the evaluation, registration, and authorization of chemical substances contained in imported products.
In Germany, the government imposes rules on PV panel recycling as well. According to these rules, 80% of the weight of every PV panel has to be recyclable. The rules do not specify exactly which materials PV importers need to recycle, just that they have to recycle the majority of the panel after decommissioning.
The entity responsible for the disposal of solar panels is the producer. This includes all costs associated with disposal, including transport. The panel owner/customer is the party responsible for the de-installation of the panels.
In Japan, on the other hand, producers pay an end-of-life fee for their panels, thus covering all costs associated with disposal.
-Manufacturers are the most important party in the solar panel equation. They come up with the technology, they devise their manufacturing processes and they handle disposal/recycling.
A 2014 study of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, concerning photovoltaic module decommissioning has recorded interesting answers from PV panel manufacturers concerning recycling.
- The overwhelming majority of manufacturers said they viewed recycling as a necessity.
- Even more of them thought that recycling was the responsibility of the manufacturer.
- Most of them opined that manufacturers should design their PV panels with recyclability in mind.
- Some of them also predicted that within 20 years, the complete re-use of all materials from PV panels would become possible.
Most manufacturers scoffed at the idea of in-house recycling, however. Instead, they suggested that specialized recycling companies should handle the process, in their facilities.
What motivates manufacturers to adopt such a positive stance towards PV panel recycling? Some have cited ecological reasons. More importantly, however, recycling makes financial sense to them.
Recovering the materials from ready-made products takes less energy than refining them from scratch, using raw materials. What’s more, some manufacturers argued that they would like to see themselves entitled to manage the materials encapsulated in solar panels.
Some PV panel producers saw recycling as a way of improving/building the image of their companies. Others expressed concern about raw material reduction. Recycling is the best way to address such concerns.
Manufacturers can also address the environmental footprint of their products through the proper planning of their factories/plants.
In this regard, they should certainly plan for decommissioning. When establishing a solar panel plant, the most resource and time-consuming phases of the project are:
- Land preparation.
- The building of converter/transformer capabilities.
The building of modules and mechanical assembly are only fourth and fifth on this list.
We have to point out that the cost of decommissioning a panel amounts to about 50% of its original building costs.
How Does the Decommissioning/Recycling Process Work?
Once the end consumer decides to get rid of his/her solar panels, demounting commences.
The demounted panels may still be usable, however. Specialized companies can repair, recondition and re-sell these modules, on the secondary market.
Modules unfit for reconditioning may head the way of the landfill. This is the least desirable outcome of the decommissioning process.
Recycling is a better option. Modules that go down this path are either up-cycled or down-cycled.
Up-cycling means that the materials recovered from decommissioned solar panels go towards the building of new solar panels.
Down-cycled material loses its usability due to contamination and other factors. As such, it is no longer suited for solar panel production. The glass industry handles such down-cycling.
The recycling process itself carries some environmental burdens. That said, recycling still makes economic/environmental/practical sense.
In 2006, Deutsche Solar AG commissioned a study from Anja Muller, Karsten Wambach, Erik Alsema, and others, concerning the feasibility of recycling. The study concluded that the Energy Payback Time (EPBT) of a module built from recycled materials, is half of that of a module built from raw materials.
Which Countries Are The Top Solar Manufacturers?
When it comes to solar panel production, China is the undisputed world leader. Most of the biggest solar panel plants are Chinese. While almost every one of these companies maintains scores of subsidiaries abroad, most of the solar panel-making factories are located in China as well.
Interestingly, while Canadian Solar is a Canadian company, most of its products are made in China.
– German companies make some solar panels as well. RECOM, AxiTec and AE Solar are all German and some of them manufacture their own components.
– The US is also a solar world power. Companies such as Auxin Solar, First Solar, and Lumos Solar maintain US-based production facilities. Lumos and Auxin produce exclusively in the US.
– Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric, Panasonic, Sharp Solar, and Kyocera firmly place the country among the top solar producers as well.
– South Korea’s LG and Hyundai produce solar panels as well as other electronics.
– Vikram and Navitas Solar only produce solar modules in their India-based facilities.
Should You Buy Your Solar Panels Locally?
According to LG and common sense, you should always buy solar panels from a local company.
You can physically walk into the offices of such companies. You can see their offer and discuss the details in person. Such a course of action is always advisable over online shopping from an overseas entity. The investment being a sizable one, the risks are too big.
That said, you should not nurture false hopes concerning the place where your locally-bought panels are made. Most panels are made in China, or one of the mentioned countries.
Does the place of origin make a difference in the quality of your panels? In some cases it does, in others, it does not. If you are looking to avoid “made in China”, be prepared to shell out more money for your panels.