Solar panels may harm environment

2013-01-17 13:15
Renewable energy systems attract a high upfront cost, but they may be a money saver over the long term. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Renewable energy systems attract a high upfront cost, but they may be a money saver over the long term. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Thin Film Solar (TFS) panels may hold lots of promise for renewable energy solutions because of their reduced cost, but they may also negatively affect the environment, a researcher has said.

"The complete recyclability of TFS modules may however be problematic since most thin film PV [photovoltaic] materials cannot be re-used. Si, on the other hand does not pose an environmental threat and can be recycled along with the glass and aluminium frame," Dr Frederik Vorster, senior researcher at the Photovoltaics Research Unit, in the Centre for Energy Research (CER), Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University told News24.

Activists agreed that the panels were not good for the environment, but said that they were still better than older, polluting technologies.

"You have to look at these technologies relative to others. Those things can be mitigated," Saliem Fakir, head of WWF's Living Planet Unit told News24.

TFS panels are generally constructed with silicon deposited by chemical vapour deposition, a process used to develop high purity materials.

Exotic compounds

More exotic materials such as Gallium arsenide which have more superior electronic properties than Silicon have also been used in solar panels.

The WWF said that an environmental management programme should be considered with the mass consumption of TFS panels.

"You've got to have a buy back scheme and provide for the cost of recycling," said Fakir. He added that such programmes needed to be legislated to ensure that toxic minerals could be recycled.

Japan has a programme where discarded computers and other electronics are harvested for rare earth elements such as Yttrium and Lanthanum, among others.

Exotic compounds like Cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium selenide (CIS) used in solar panels are not stable and the design of the cell should take this into account.

"From a materials point of view, CIS, CIGS and CdTe are inherently less stable when exposed to the atmosphere than Si and therefore need to be very well encapsulated within the module structure," Vorster said.

For consumers, there is more choice to install solar panels, but the WWF cautioned that buyers beware of unscrupulous installers in SA.

"That is a concern. The government should ensure standards and consumers have to become more aware of the technology," said Fakir.

"There are reputable companies in South Africa, but installers want to make their mark-up," he added.

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