Making the Green Economy Dirty

One of the challenges in pursuing a greener economy quicker is the risk, the serious risk, that quicker could mean dirtier.  The Washington Post carried an expose of one of those risks on its front page this Sunday:  Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China.    WashPost calls out Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co, a producer of “polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world,” for dumping a “bubbling white liquid” (silicon tetrachloride) in the middle of a village.

“The land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

Chinese companies are rushing to produce polysilicon at an ever faster rate, with plants being constructed that will triple the world’s capacity.  But this means a lot of waste ….

For each ton of polysilicon produced, the process generates at least four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste. 

And, unless handled carefully, this waste is quite dangerous. 

When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride transforms into acids and poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people who breathe the air dizzy and can make their chests contract.

Elsewhere in the world, the silicon tetrachloride is recycled rather than dumped.  Chinese firms are, however, pursuing a far less clean path toward profiting from the booming Green economy. 

But the high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from doing the same. Like Luoyang Zhonggui, other solar plants in China have not installed technology to prevent pollutants from getting into the environment or have not brought those systems fully online, industry sources say.

The PRC government seems ready to overlook the pollution, ‘for now’, seeking to capture the boom and entertaining a fantasy, one would think, that they can relaim the damage later at a lower cost.

Just as with Christmas toys, PRC firms are moving into the ‘green economy’, starting to capture ever greater market share and helping to lower the costs for renewable energy technologies.

Chinese companies are saving millions of dollars by not installing pollution recovery.

… if environmental protection technology is used, the cost to produce one ton is approximately $84,500. But Chinese companies are making it at $21,000 to $56,000a ton.

Yes, PRC firms are helping make solar panels cheaper by the dozens. 

One of the key elements in pursuing a Green economy is accounting for total costs, to account for the “external” costs within the understanding of a system’s cost. Would any “environmentalist” buying solar panels to reduce their environmental impact being warmed to hear of poisoning Chinese children to get the panels on their roof?

Each night, villagers said, the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. “It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he worries about his 1-year-old son’s health.


2 responses to “Making the Green Economy Dirty

  1. The 550 member companies of SEIA were outraged and disappointed by the reports of toxic chemical dumping by a factory in China … this practice violates both our association’s professional code of conduct and the very spirit of what we’re trying to do as an industry. We are out to solve environmental problems, not create them… Solar energy is the most environmentally friendly energy technology that exists today… But manufacturing solar feedstocks, like any heavy industry, requires strong environmental safeguards. Polysilicon, the primary feedstock in most solar cells, has been produced in the U.S. and Europe for fifty years using the Siemens process in a clean, safe manner, in strict compliance with environmental law… Rhone Resch, president, Solar Energy Industries Association, Washington, D.C. See Rhone’s full statement:


  2. At least 89% of air pollution associated with electricity generation could be prevented if power from solar photovoltaics (PV) displaces convention sources of energy on the the grid. In addition, the PV industry follows a pro-active, long-term environmental strategy involving sa recycling and waste management to prevent environmental damage. For more information on the environmental sustainability of solar energy, please see the following link to a study by Brookhaven National Lab and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL):

    and a recent Science News article about it:

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