By AFP Staff
In early June, in an effort to meet so-called “clean energy” goals, President Joe Biden announced he would not impose tariffs on solar panels imported from China. Biden also said he was invoking the Defense Production Act to stimulate U.S. manufacturing of solar panels and batteries. For decades, so-called “green energy” products like solar panels have been labelled cleaner alternatives to other forms of energy. While solar power does produce less air pollution, the truth is, the chemicals used to make solar panels are incredibly toxic and have polluted rivers and landfills in key industrial areas in countries like China where most of them are made.
For China, pollution has been a growing problem. Every year, China loses thousands of acres of once-arable land to desertification, which is caused by factory farming that destroys the ground.
Specifically related to solar energy, one city just outside of industrial hub Shanghai has been hit hard by the toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of solar panels.
In 2011, hundreds of Chinese held violent protests outside a solar panel factory in the city of Haining. The factory was owned by JinkoSolar, a Shanghai-based firm that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Haining is located about an hour and a half outside of Shanghai.
That year, locals accused JinkoSolar of polluting local streams and rivers by dumping chemicals directly into the water to avoid the high cost of disposing of them in environmentally safe ways.
Chemicals commonly used in the production of solar panels, such as cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di)selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead, and polyvinyl fluoride, have been blamed for the pollution. These chemicals are highly toxic and carcinogenic and were blamed for widespread fish-kills in rivers and streams surrounding the Haining factory.
In addition, Chinese environmental activists say dozens of people who lived near the factory came down with rare forms of cancer caused by the types of chemicals the factory used.
On Sept. 19, 2011, the Chinese government ordered JinkoSolar to close its plant in Haining and fined JinkoSolar $74,000. It is very difficult to know exactly what ultimately happened to JinkoSolar’s factory following the initial reports of the local protests because the Chinese government quickly tamped down on any news surrounding the company and allegations of pollution.
Whatever happened to that one factory, though, the charges of dumping toxic waste didn’t hurt JinkoSolar’s bottom line. In 2011, when JinkoSolar was fined for pollution, the company brought in over $1 billion in profits. Today, according to publicly available information, the company’s profits top $7 billion annually.
Since the factory shutdown in 2011, JinkoSolar has not been without controversy.
In 2015, activists in Malaysia vociferously objected to the factory JinkoSolar opened on the northern coastal town of Batu Kawan.
AFP reached out to Huan Cheng Guan, a former top level Malaysian official, who publicly objected to JinkoSolar’s factory in 2015, but Guan did not respond before the newspaper went to press.
Despite these issues, JinkoSolar is still the largest manufacturer of solar panels in the word. It now operates a dozen plants in China, the United States, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
And that’s not all. In 2021, in a lengthy report, Michael Shellenberger, a writer for Forbes magazine’s news and commentary website, detailed even more problems associated with solar panels.
“Solar panels are delicate and break easily,” wrote Shellenberger. “When they do, they instantly become hazardous … due to their heavy metal contents.”
Much like the almost unbelievable amounts of waste produced from plastics, the fact is, the cost to society of disposing of all these solar panels will quickly outweigh any benefits society gets from the so-called “clean” and “green” energy they produce, wrote Shellenberger. If politicians were honest and added these hidden costs to the price of “green energy,” it would quickly balloon far beyond more traditional—and cleaner—means of energy such as natural gas or nuclear power.
The fact is, if you believe the volumes of pollution that mankind is producing today is making the world unlivable, then the price we will eventually pay for cheap, toxic solar panels flooding the world isn’t worth it. We will be trading one problem now for even more in the not-so distant future.
There is a solution, though.
“A first step to forestalling disaster,” wrote researchers for the Harvard Business Review, “may be for solar panel producers to start lobbying for similar legislation in the United States immediately, instead of waiting for solar panels to start clogging landfills.”
That seems unlikely since one of the main reasons global corporations go to countries like Malaysia and Vietnam is that they don’t have to deal with expensive regulations that ensure they can save a few bucks by dumping waste into streams and rivers or bury them deep in landfills where no one in industrial countries will see them.
A second step would be to admit that the “green energy” initiatives advanced by politicians in the Western world aren’t that clean, as the products needed for them simply pass on pollution problems to remote Third World countries outside the gaze of latte-sipping elites in the West.