Hazardous Waste…from the Solar Industry

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The solar energy industry is struggling with what to do with millions of tons of hazardous waste generated each year. Yes, you read that right…the solar energy industry. The one consistently held up by the media and environmental groups as “clean.” According to a report from the Associated Press, “Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.”

Polluted sludge? Contaminated water? This doesn’t sound like the solar power industry we’ve been told about. But it is. In fact, California’s solar industry alone generated a reported 46 million pounds of hazardous waste between 2007 and mid-2011, with more than a million pounds of those byproducts exported to other states as far away as Rhode Island. The majority of the exports ended up in Arkansas. Take into account the carbon footprint associated with solar industry waste and the “clean” moniker falls off completely.

Dustin Mulvaney, a San Jose State University environmental studies professor, says, “It would take one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving those hazardous waste emissions out of state.”

Driven by aggressive government subsidies and policies aimed at reducing fossil fuel use, the U.S. solar power industry is bound to keep growing. That means more waste hitting the roadways, subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Solyndra, made infamous after taxpayers coughed up $535 million to help it achieve bankruptcy, is reported to have produced about “12.5 million pounds of hazardous waste, much of it carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water.” At least Solyndra produced solar panels. According to the report, other manufacturers generated millions of pounds of waste while never selling a single panel.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should stop making solar panels. It just means that maybe the labels of “clean” and “dirty” that some pundits smugly throw around aren’t meaningful anymore. Just as Jesus famously challenged those without sin to  cast the first stone at a woman accused of adultery, we should think twice when anyone holds up an energy industry that creates polluted sludge and contaminated water as an alternative to “dirty power.” That kind of hypocrisy doesn’t help the conversation.

PACE has always maintained that all energy sources have costs, benefits, and consequences. By pursuing the greatest benefit with the least cost and the fewest consequences, we best serve those who pay for electricity. That’s the conversation we should be having, instead of throwing stones.