Solar Industry Urged To Act On Lead Pollution

The news release headline is a shocker: “Solar industry responsible for lead emissions in developing countries.” Unpacking the study behind it, the threat appears to be real – though it’s not solar power so much as lead batteries that are the problem. And even more than that, it’s poor mining, processing and disposal practices with lead that are to blame.

Chris Cherry, a University of Tennessee assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, co-wrote the report with Perry Gottesfeld of San Francisco-based Occupational Knowledge International, an organization that works to reduce exposure to industrial pollutants in developing countries. Their work appears in the September issue of the journal Energy Policy.

solar power and lead pollution

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Here’s what the researchers did: They started with the fact that China plans to add 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity by 2020, while India plans to add 12 GW, “in addition to 20 million solar lanterns,” by 2022. These are technologies that rely heavily on lead-acid batteries for energy storage. The researchers then took the quantity of lead batteries used in existing PV systems, factored in environmental lead loss rates (33 percent for China and 22 percent for India) and came up with an estimate for how much lead pollution would result from implementing the solar goals. Their conclusion: 386 kilotons in China and 2,030 in India – “equal to one-third of global lead production in 2009.”

So while this is a problem stemming from solar power, it’s not inherent to photovoltaic technology, and it is solvable – if the solar industry forces better practices on lead. Says Gottesfelt: “”The solar industry has to step up and take responsibility for ensuring that their lead battery suppliers are operating with adequate controls as long as they are going to be reliant on this technology. Without major improvements in the manufacturing and recycling lead batteries in these countries, we expect that lead poisoning will increase as the industry grows.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.