Solar Industry Catching Heat over Toxic Metal

Published January 21, 2010

The European Union is considering legislation to pressure the solar power industry to phase out the use of cadmium.

Cadmium is a key component of next-generation solar photovoltaic panels, touted as a partial solution to exorbitant costs associated with solar power. However, cadmium is so toxic the EU has banned it from most products.

The American Solar Energy Society (ASEA) is lobbying against the proposed cadmium ban and is fighting hard to prevent a similar ban in the United States. ASEA argues the cadmium in solar panels will be sealed in glass for the 25-year life of the panel and will then be fully recyclable.

Big Footprint

Environmental advocates are increasingly challenging the solar power industry about its environmental footprint. Solar power projects frequently face opposition from conservation groups concerned about the large amount of land that must be developed to produce even a modest amount of solar power.

For example, the Nevada Solar One power array, the most efficient solar power project in the nation, requires 350 acres of land to produce–at peak efficiency at noon on a cloudless day–less than one-tenth the power of a conventional coal power plant.

Additionally, the conversion of solar energy to electricity consumes much more water than coal power generation. For this reason, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and various environmental activist groups have opposed solar power projects proposed for California’s Mojave Desert.

Although cadmium solar panels are currently legal in the United States, it seems only a matter of time before the environmental concern and political pressure exerted against the use of cadmium panels in Europe finds its way across the Atlantic.

“This just shows there is no green source of energy if by ‘green’ you mean an energy source that has no environmental impact,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis. “Too many environmental activists live in a fantasy world where you can have everything you want and there are no tradeoffs, opportunity costs, or externalities.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.