A recent letter to this publication discussed the potential toxicity of solar panels and the risk they will pose to human health and the environment. I am a faculty in Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University, and my expertise is on the environmental impact of energy, in particular solar. I am glad to see citizens raising important questions regarding safety and environmental impact of new technologies, and I think it might be useful to clarify some ideas about solar and the environment.
The solar industry is proactive with regards to sustainability and in particular regarding toxicity and waste management. I participated with solar modules manufacturers and other public health experts in the creation of a Sustainability Leadership Standard for Photovoltaic Modules NSF/ANSI 457, which provides performance metrics for toxic substances. Even if modules are not certified, land contamination in the U.S. is unlikely. Modules’ performance degrade with moisture, and therefore they are encapsulated to survive 30 years in various climates, which also ensure that they don’t leach easily. If a module or the encapsulation breaks, the module will likely be replaced since it will produce little or no electricity.
Solar modules can contain some toxic chemicals such as lead, but in concentrations that are usually lower than in common electronics products, which we touch directly every day. My group performed toxicity studies on various types of modules and found that the majority would not be classified as hazardous wastes, and could be sent to a regular landfill. Regarding new chemicals concerns, contamination with PFAS is much more likely from using non-stick cookware and stain repellant than from solar modules. Tedlar, which is manufactured by DuPont and widely used in the industry, does not use or contain PFAS or GenX. A less common product, Teflon PTFE, did but is no longer sold.
Even if solar modules are usually nontoxic, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has created a national PV recycling program, and manufacturers such as First Solar already have a recycling facility years before modules are expected to reach end-of-life. No other industry has developed a recycling program before there is a waste problem. Overall the general public concerns about solar modules health and environmental safety are responsible for the best practices adopted by the major solar manufacturers, and raising questions will ensure that solar remains a clean and safe source of energy.
Dr. Annick Anctil