EU Laws Could Restrict Hazardous Materials in Solar Panels
The EU is taking the right steps for solar power. Photo Credit: CojNet
If the EU bulks up laws regarding electrical products that are manufactured with hazardous materials, it could pose serious problems for the still-fledgling solar industry. This could mean a particularly rough time for First Solar, a global leader in solar panel manufacturing. The solar titans pull in $1.2 billion in sales, a substantial portion of which come from Europe.
First Solar’s thin-film panels (a major factor in the panel’s success) contain a compound of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal banned from most products in Europe. The compound is made with the element tellurium, which creates cadmium telluride for the purpose of converting light to electricity. First Solar is not the only company that produces these panels; GE recently announced plans to do so, among others who already do. However, First Solar’s one and only product contains these materials. A ban could cripple the company, not to mention the fact that their second-largest factory is located in Germany, and they even have plans for new construction in France.
The EU is currently presided over by Sweden, which proposed the changes to the law. A primary goal for the law is to close loopholes that would allow new electronic products that were not previously considered hazardous to slip through the cracks. If enacted in this full extent, the law could create bans on new solar prodcuts. However, this proposal is only in the very early stages and you can bet there will be resistance and politics before it’s all said and done.
The solar industry is standing up though. The European Photovoltaic Industry Association warned that a “young, growing industry” still striving “to reach competitiveness” should not be subject to the hazardous waste rules, according to the NY Times. First Solar reports that they see no reason to include their own (and other) solar panels under the proposed changes to the law and cited a study done by France that the dangers to humans during operational lifespan of the panels is negligible. Also, First Solar maintains a recycling program that is meant to take care of the cadmium telluride. The recycling program was started voluntarily by the company.
There is an environmental trade-off for going solar on a government-enacted scale. So what constitutes clean, green and free? Compact fluorescent light bulbs? The idea behind the new proposal is to keep the pressure on “green” companies to manufacture products that are truly long-term green (something I believe won’t happen until we give up things like electricity, or learn thin-air alchemy for all our mining needs).
This is a tough call for me. I feel strongly that green should run all the way through, not just in benefits reaped. But I also don’t see this as less sustainable or more dangerous to humans than coal-fired power plants and the like. We always need to remember that new products are still often composed from dangerous elements and I applaud the EU for addressing this all the way down to the manufacturing stage. The step toward renewable energy is a big one for the species and we have to start somewhere, after all. So, in the end, I support the panel production. Let’s keep going down this road with our good health and nonscientific well-being in mind too. It all contributes to a better place to live.
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