1.2.2 Photovoltaic (PV) Technologies

Crystalline Silicon

This subsection explores the toxicity of silicon-based PV panels and concludes that they do not pose a material risk of toxicity to public health and safety. Modern crystalline silicon PV panels, which account for over 90% of solar PV panels installed today, are, more or less, a commodity product. The overwhelming majority of panels installed in North Carolina are crystalline silicon panels that are informally classified as Tier I panels. Tier I panels are from well-respected manufacturers that have a good chance of being able to honor warranty claims. Tier I panels are understood to be of high quality, with predictable performance, durability, and content. Well over 80% (by weight) of the content of a PV panel is the tempered glass front and the aluminum frame, both of which are common building materials. Most of the remaining portion are common plastics, including polyethylene terephthalate in the backsheet, EVA encapsulation of the PV cells, polyphenyl ether in the junction box, and polyethylene insulation on the wire leads. The active, working components of the system are the silicon photovoltaic cells, the small electrical leads connecting them together, and to the wires coming out of the back of the panel. The electricity generating and conducting components makeup less than 5% of the weight of most panels. The PV cell itself is nearly 100% silicon, and silicon is the second most common element in the Earth's crust. The silicon for PV cells is obtained by high-temperature processing of quartz sand (SiO2) that removes its oxygen molecules. The refined silicon is converted to a PV cell by adding extremely small amounts of boron and phosphorus, both of which are common and of very low toxicity.

The other minor components of the PV cell are also generally benign; however, some contain lead, which is a human toxicant that is particularly harmful to young children. The minor components include an extremely thin antireflective coating (silicon nitride or titanium dioxide), a thin layer of aluminum on the rear, and thin strips of silver alloy that are screen-printed on the front and rear of cell. 7 In order for the front and rear electrodes to make effective electrical contact with the proper layer of the PV cell, other materials (called glass frit) are mixed with the silver alloy and then heated to etch the metals into the cell. This glass frit historically contains a small amount of lead (Pb) in the form of lead oxide. The 60 or 72 PV cells in a PV panel are connected by soldering thin solder-covered copper tabs from the back of one cell to the front of the next cell. Traditionally a tin-based solder containing some lead (Pb) is used, but some manufacturers have switched to lead-free solder. The glass frit and/or the solder may contain trace amounts of other metals, potentially including some with human toxicity such as cadmium. However, testing to simulate the potential for leaching from broken panels, which is discussed in more detail below, did not find a potential toxicity threat from these trace elements. Therefore, the tiny amount of lead in the grass frit and the solder is the only part of silicon PV panels with a potential to create a negative health impact. However, as described below, the very limited amount of lead involved and its strong physical and chemical attachment to other components of the PV panel means that even in worst-case scenarios the health hazard it poses is insignificant.

As with many electronic industries, the solder in silicon PV panels has historically been a lead-based solder, often 36% lead, due to the superior properties of such solder. However, recent advances in lead-free solders have spurred a trend among PV panel manufacturers to reduce or remove the lead in their panels. According to the 2015 Solar Scorecard from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group that tracks environmental responsibility of photovoltaic panel manufacturers, fourteen companies (increased from twelve companies in 2014) manufacture PV panels certified to meet the European Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) standard. This means that the amount of cadmium and lead in the panels they manufacture fall below the RoHS thresholds, which are set by the European Union and serve as the world’s de facto standard for hazardous substances in manufactured goods. 8 The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) standard requires that the maximum concentration found in any homogenous material in a produce is less than 0.01% cadmium and less than 0.10% lead, therefore, any solder can be no more than 0.10% lead. 9

While some manufacturers are producing PV panels that meet the RoHS standard, there is no requirement that they do so because the RoHS Directive explicitly states that the directive does not apply to photovoltaic panels. 10 The justification for this is provided in item 17 of the current RoHS Directive: “The development of renewable forms of energy is one of the Union’s key objectives, and the contribution made by renewable energy sources to environmental and climate objectives is crucial. Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (4) recalls that there should be coherence between those objectives and other Union environmental legislation. Consequently, this Directive should not prevent the development of renewable energy technologies that have no negative impact on health and the environment and that are sustainable and economically viable.”

The use of lead is common in our modern economy. However, only about 0.5% of the annual lead consumption in the U.S. is for electronic solder for all uses; PV solder makes up only a tiny portion of this 0.5%. Close to 90% of lead consumption in the US is in batteries, which do not encapsulate the pounds of lead contained in each typical automotive battery. This puts the lead in batteries at great risk of leaching into the environment. Estimates for the lead in a single PV panel with lead-based solder range from 1.6 to 24 grams of lead, with 13g (less than half of an ounce) per panel seen most often in the literature. 11 At 13 g/panel 12, each panel contains one-half of the lead in a typical 12-gauge shotgun shell. This amount equates to roughly 1/750th of the lead in a single car battery. In a panel, it is all durably encapsulated from air or water for the full life of the panel. 13

As indicated by their 20 to 30-year power warranty, PV modules are designed for a long service life, generally over 25 years. For a panel to comply with its 25-year power warranty, its internal components, including lead, must be sealed from any moisture. Otherwise, they would corrode and the panel’s output would fall below power warranty levels. Thus, the lead in operating PV modules is not at risk of release to the environment during their service lifetime. In extreme experiments, researchers have shown that lead can leach from crushed or pulverized panels. 14 , 15 However, more real-world tests designed to represent typical trash compaction that are used to classify waste as hazardous or non-hazardous show no danger from leaching. 16 , 17 For more information about PV panel end-of-life, see the Panel Disposal section.

As illustrated throughout this section, silicon-based PV panels do not pose a material threat to public health and safety. The only aspect of the panels with potential toxicity concerns is the very small amount of lead in some panels. However, any lead in a panel is well sealed from environmental exposure for the operating lifetime of the solar panel and thus not at risk of release into the environment.

  1. ^ Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. 2015 Solar Scorecard. Accessed August 2016. www.solarscorecard.com/2015/2015-SVTC-Solar-Scorecard.pdf
  2. ^ European Commission. Recast of Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive . September 2016. Accessed August 2016. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/rohs_eee/index_en.htm
  3. ^ Official Journal of the European Union, DIRECTIVE 2011/65/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 8 June 2011 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. June 2011. Accessed May 2017. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32011L0065…
  4. ^ Giancarlo Giacchetta, Mariella Leporini, Barbara Marchetti. Evaluation of the Environmental Benefits of New High Value Process for the Management of the End of Life of Thin Film Photovoltaic Modules. July 2013. Accessed August 2016. www.researchgate.net/publication/257408804_Evaluation_of_the_environmen…
  5. ^ European Commission. Study on Photovoltaic Panels Supplementing The Impact Assessment for a Recast of the Weee Directive. April 2011. Accessed August 2016. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/weee/pdf/Study%20on%20PVs%20Bio%2…
  6. ^ The amount of lead in a typical car battery is 21.4 pounds. Waste 360. Chaz Miller. Lead Acid Batteries. March 2006. Accessed August 2016. http://waste360.com/mag/waste_leadacid_batteries_3
  7. ^ Okkenhaug G. Leaching from CdTe PV module material results from batch, column and availability tests. Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, NGI report No. 20092155-00-6-R; 2010
  8. ^ International Journal of Advanced Applied Physics Research. Renate Zapf-Gottwick1, et al. Leaching Hazardous Substances out of Photovoltaic Modules . January 2015. Accessed January 2016. www.cosmosscholars.com/phms/index.php/ijaapr/article/download/485/298
  9. ^ ibid
  10. ^ Parikhit Sinha, et al. Evaluation of Potential Health and Environmental Impacts from End-Of-Life Disposal of Photovoltaics, Photovoltaics, 2014. Accessed May 2016
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