are solar panels toxic or dangerous

Are solar panels toxic to the environment?

For many homeowners, one of the primary motives for going solar is to have a positive impact on the environment. When you use solar energy in your home, you lower your overall greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide, and you reduce your carbon footprint.

While solar panels are considered a form of clean, renewable energy, the manufacturing process does produce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, to produce solar panels, manufacturers need to handle toxic chemicals. However, solar panels are not emitting toxins into the atmosphere as they’re generating electricity.  

What to remember about solar panel toxicity

  • Solar panels are not directly toxic, and having them on your property is not a health risk
  • There are potentially harmful chemicals used in panel production, but responsible manufacturers will dispose of them properly
  • Start comparing solar quotes from reputable installers on the EnergySage Marketplace today

Chemicals in the solar manufacturing process: are they dangerous?

The primary material used for solar cells today is silicon, which is derived from quartz. In order to become usable forms of silicon, the quartz has to be mined and heated in a furnace (which, in turn, emits sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).

There are some chemicals used in the manufacturing process to prepare silicon and make the wafers for monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. One of the most toxic chemicals created as a byproduct of this process is silicon tetrachloride. This chemical, if not handled and disposed of properly, can lead to burns on your skin, harmful air pollutants that increase lung disease, and if exposed to water can release hydrochloric acid, which is a corrosive substance bad for human and environmental health. Fortunately, there is a process that most manufacturers employ to safely recycle silicon tetrachloride back into the manufacturing process for new silicon wafers, helping to eliminate health and environmental risks.

The large majority of panels used in installations are safe, silicon-based panels; however, if you’re installing thin-film technology, there are additional toxic materials contained in the thin-film panels itself, such as cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide. These materials are used in the manufacturing process for many other electronics, like your cell phone or laptop. Thin-film panels are not common for residential solar installations and are most often used in large commercial or utility scaled applications.

While these chemicals can be considered as hazardous, they aren’t so while the panels are on your roof. The concern for their toxicity comes into play during the manufacturing process, as well as disposal process from by-products during the manufacturing process, and at the end of the panel’s lifetime. 

Responsible solar panel manufacturers will ensure that the chemicals used in the manufacturing process are handled properly. Unfortunately, there have also been instances in the past of dumping hazardous into nature in various parts of the world (such as China). The resulting public outcry caused stock prices of manufacturers involved in these instances to drop, and solar companies started to implement more stringent rules and regulations in regards to recycling and disposal to protect against this happening in the future.

If solar panel manufacturing uses toxic chemicals, why is it considered green energy?

During the lifecycle of a PV system, the majority of greenhouse gas emissions occurs during the manufacturing process. As solar panel manufacturing becomes more efficient, its carbon footprint shrinks significantly: a 2016 study reports that the overall emissions produced in this process decreased by 17 to 24 percent every time install capacity has doubled in the last 40 years.

As your solar panel system produces electricity on your roof, it is 100 percent renewable, free of pollutants and emissions. It is also directly impacting your carbon footprint, and the carbon footprint of your community.

If your primary aim in going solar is to benefit the environment, you can rest easy knowing that while the manufacturing of solar panels produces greenhouse gas emissions, your panels are still much better for the environment than other options. The overall greenhouse gas emissions involved in solar energy is still much lower than coal or natural gas. A 2011 report showed that solar’s carbon footprint averaged at roughly 85 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per gigawatt-hour (GWh), while natural gas and coal came in at 499 CO2e/GWh and 888 CO2e/GWh, respectively.

While solar panels, like other electronics, contain and are manufactured using toxic materials, measures can be taken to minimize negative effects. Silicon tetrachloride, mentioned above as one of the most toxic chemicals involved in the manufacturing of panels, is usually recycled by manufacturers as a cost-saving measure. They can use this byproduct to create more polysilicon, and therefore more panels. Many of the other toxic chemicals and products in solar panels can also be recycled.

Recycling of the panels at the end of their life is also a growing trend. Some manufacturers (like SunPower and First Solar) offer global recycling programs for their customers. While not all manufacturers offer recycling programs today for old panels, it hasn’t been a huge concern considering the lifespan of these panels. Solar panels didn’t start becoming widely popular until the 1990s (and even more so post-2000s). As a result, the majority of panels are still useable and producing electricity. Because of the rising popularity of solar, recycling programs and companies are expected to be even more prominent in the near future than they already are.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Many panel manufacturers are focusing on sustainability in the manufacturing process to promote the health of the earth, as well as employees and factory workers involved in the production of their panels. A nonprofit organization known as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is leading the pack in advocating for sustainable practices for electronics manufacturers, including solar panel companies. They publish a report known as the Solar Scorecard that evaluates a variety of panel manufacturers on their environmental protection measures, as well as measures for their employees and their communities.

The scorecard uses a few different factors to determine manufacturer ranking on the Solar Scorecard, including emissions tracking, how many toxic materials are included in their modules, water usage in manufacturing, the use of conflict materials (which are those that come from various areas of Africa with unjust mining practices), and worker’s rights.

In the most recent Scorecard, SunPower was given the highest ranking of the companies that responded to the survey, followed closely by SolarWorld, Trina, Aleo, and Jinko.

Going solar and staying green

Manufacturers are continuing to improve their sustainability efforts, and if you’re looking to install a solar panel system that’s as green as possible, the Solar Scorecard can be a good resource to use to find out more general information about various manufacturers.

That doesn’t mean that you should automatically rule out companies that aren’t included in the list, or appear very low on it. While this scorecard is a good resource for homeowners who want the assurance of a sustainable manufacturing process to be as high as possible, it’s worth noting that there are many panel manufacturers that don’t respond to the survey from this organization, or don’t accurately track factors used in the scorecard and therefore cannot report on it.

Keep in mind that your solar panels will keep producing electricity for 30 to 35 years. We’re very optimistic that as time goes on, recycling options for solar panels will improve. Every item’s manufacturing process has an ecological and social footprint, but the environmental benefit from going solar now and overtime outweighs sticking with a utility company and using dirty energy (and saves you money too!).

As your considering your solar options, we recommend signing up on EnergySage to receive multiple quotes from pre-screened installers. These quotes will include information about the type of panel they’re recommending, and can also be updated according to your preferences (as most installers offer multiple equipment packages!) If you’d prefer to start with an estimate on potential costs and savings of a solar installation, try our Solar Calculator.

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Categories: Buyer's Guide

About Kerry Thoubboron

Kerry is an expert in all things solar! She's worked in the industry for more than 6 years, starting her career as an Energy Advisor dedicated to helping customers compare their options and make well-informed solar decisions. She graduated from Boston University with a degree in Environmental Analysis and Policy. Outside of work, you can find Kerry snowboarding, watching The Office, or having passionate debates about which New England state is best (spoiler: it's Vermont).

18 thoughts on “Are solar panels toxic to the environment?

  1. Azreal Grimm

    The fact that people are still pushing a solar narrative is telling if you look at the folks at the top pushing it. Its a get rich now scheme at best and if it is so imperative that we get off of proven and reliable sources of energy, then the money that is being wastefully and needlessly dumped into wind and solar would be better served going into researching other ways to clean up the carbon footprint of coal, natural gas and making safer nuclear facilities. While they say that solar panels will last 30 to 35 years, they fail to mention the life span of the batteries needed to store the energy, which dont last as long and are toxic af. Also, wind turbine blades and moors have a life expectancy of 5 yo 7 years, and are causing a huge issue in landfills as they are made up of resins, polymers and fiberglass, which, when they cut them up on site in order to move them, cause those toxins to go into the soil and ground water.
    While i applaud the intentions and efforts of the people wanting sustainable solutions for future generations, they really need to wisen up and look at it from every angle from production, installation, life span and environmental impact after their service life ends.

    1. Tristan Smith

      I 100% agree! I think the whole life cycle is very important, and those pushing these new solutions should be providing solutions for every part of the life cycle, including manufacturing, operation, and end of life recycling. If we hold current energy production methods to a certain standard, so we should to the new renewable energy production methods.

  2. Sena

    I would recommend that people actually read the attached paper in the article. It provides useful insight. Most people myself included are now reading this article after the Michael Moore documentary. This paper specifically states,

    “Accounting for emissions from all phases
    of the project (construction, operation, and decommissioning) is called a lifecycle approach.”

    Something that the documentary did not account for was the advancement of photovoltaic cells, which seemed to also interfere with this articles findings, as the authors mention.

    I think this discussion needs to be data driven and I encourage people to do research on this topic. Regardless if Moore was right or not about the energy sources, it is true that not enough is being done, and that we may have to rethink our way of living

  3. Jenny

    Just wondering how the mining of these elements factor into the carbon foot print?
    I’m assuming that wasn’t captured in the manufacturing side of the equation. I’m guessing those elements come from big open pit or underground mines that are HC intensive in use and with large environmental footprints.

  4. GWB

    *Jeremy Rifkin
    1. This article provides little to no proof of anything it says
    This means you assume what this article says is true
    2. It is good to hear both sides of the argument from experts so hearing what Rifkin has to say would be a good idea
    3. Installing solar panels on everyone’s roofs isnt practical and wont produce enough consistent electricity to be the main power source of a city. That means they have to use large solar fields. Those are terrible for the environment.
    4. Solar panels dont work everywhere and dont work 24/7
    5. Natural gas is required to regulate solar power
    6. Solar power is weak compared to other forms of energy, same for wind and water power.


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