China: Not so green solar energy?

Solar panels, one of the most commonly touted solutions to the world’s climate woes, may have a less shiny record than first appears.

Stephen Chen, writing on 10 September in the South China Morning Post warns that the production of solar panels involved a shockingly large consumption of energy. And the workers making them could be experiencing a less than healthy working climate.

The article – which no longer available on the paper’s website, but it is available on numerous blogs including The Battle of Tours – cites Jian Shuisheng, a professor of optical technology at Beijing Jiaotong University, who estimates making the 10kg of polysilicon required to produce a solar panel itself requires a staggering amount of energy.

Five years ago, mainland China’s production of polysilicon – the key component of solar panels – was negligible. Today, China is the world’s leading producer of the material, the article says, and last year churned out 4,000 tonnes – 80 times as much as in 2004.

And the thirty-odd plants in China producing ever increasing volumes of polysilicon could be leaving their workforce feeling green. It’s not the first time the occupational hazards have been raised – including in this Green Jobs blog.

Dr Dang Qingde, deputy head of the department of labour safety of the Centre for Disease Control in the city of Leshan in Sichuan, measured the amount of toxic chemicals in the air at a polysilicon plant in September 2007.

Leshan is one of a handful of cities to have imported polysilicon production lines from overseas. The plant in the city is capable of producing 1,500 tonnes of polysilicon a year.

Chen writes: “Using a hand-held device, Dang found more than 10 poisonous substances – from ammonia, the effects of which are relatively mild, to the lung-eating trichlorosilane – but all at levels within the safe limits decreed by Beijing.

 “Nevertheless, he wrote a report in which he rated the workplace ‘highly hazardous’.”

 He quotes Dang as saying: “A shiny polysilicon plant is like a shiny bomb. It may look clean and innocent, but you don’t want to have one in your neighbourhood.”

Dang published his findings in an academic journal, despite opposition from the plant’s management, in the hope it would draw the attention of others to the environmental issues in polysilicon production.

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