Apex, the solar company involved in the Herald article, maintains its solar panels are made of silica, tempered glass, and wire – no harmful materials included.
Silica (or silicon) is a naturally occurring compound, often found in sand. It is the part of a solar panel that absorbs sunlight. Silica is extremely abundant and has electric potential, making it ideal for solar panel use.
According to the Climate Reality Project, solar panels are made up of silica-based solar cells. The silica absorbs sunlight, knocking electrons out of alignment. Free electrons collect and flow through a conductor to create electric current.
So, fundamentally, solar panels are not built with toxic materials. But there’s more to the story than that. First, manufacturing solar panels does create carbon dioxide, albeit far less than coal or natural gas processing.
“Overall greenhouse gas emissions involved in solar energy is still (unsurprisingly) much lower than coal or natural gas,” explained the Climate Reality Project.
The bigger problem, though, is what to do with the panels at the end of their lifespan. A typical solar panel warranty lasts about 20 to 25 years.
In 2016, there were 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste in the world, expected to increase to 78 million by 2050. Sometimes, this waste contains materials such as lead and cadmium – toxic materials that could get into the soil if the panel cells broke.
“There is real-world precedent for this concern. A tornado in 2015 broke 200,000 solar modules at southern California solar farm Desert Sunlight,” reported Michael Shellenberger in Forbes.
In the end, about 70 percent of those broken modules were recycled into new panels, but 30 percent had to be swept up and treated as hazardous waste.
However, a 2018 Guardian article debunked Shellenberger’s claims, explaining that leaks are only a concern with broken panels, which are rare outside of natural disaster areas.
“In a disaster area, leaching of metals from some broken solar panels is the least of a city’s problems,” the Guardian wrote.
The paper reported that, on average, 80 percent of a solar panel is recyclable. Though the recycling system needs work to make it a usable reality, panels can be stored until the right technologies are available.
The bottom line: Solar panels aren’t perfect. They create waste, but it’s waste that can be contained until there are systems in place to deal with it, unlike the waste leaking into the atmosphere from the current energy supply.