The Dirty Side of a “Green” Industry

As people worldwide increasingly feel the heat of climate change, many are applauding the skyrocketing growth of China’s fledgling solar-cell industry. Solar power and other “green” technologies, by providing electricity from renewable energy sources like the sun and wind, create hope for a world free of coal-burning pollution and natural resource depletion. A recent Washington Post article, however, has revealed that China’s booming solar industry is not as green as one might expect. Many of the solar panels that now adorn European and American rooftops have left behind a legacy of toxic pollution in Chinese villages and farmlands.

The Post article describes how Luoyang Zhonggui, a major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer, is dumping toxic factory waste directly on to the lands of neighboring villages, killing crops and poisoning residents. Other polysilicon factories in the country have similar problems, either because they have not installed effective pollution control equipment or they are not operating these systems to full capacity. Polysilicon is a key component of the sunlight-capturing wafers used in solar photovoltaic (PV) cells.

China is now a global leader in solar PV manufacture. According to the recent Worldwatch Institute report Powering China’s Development: The Role of Renewable Energy, PV production capacity in China jumped from 350 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to over 1,000 MW in 2006, with 1,500 MW estimated for 2007. High-profile initial public stock offerings for several Chinese companies, some valued in the billions of dollars, have focused global attention on how this industry will progress—having literally developed from scratch into the world’s third largest PV industry in just five years. Most of this development, however, is driven by global demand, with over 90 percent of Chinese-made solar PV systems being exported to Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Technologies exist to recycle the chemical byproducts of solar-cell production, but some Chinese polysilicon plants, including Luoyang Zhonggui, are cutting costs and corners by avoiding significant extra investment in pollution control. The cheaper prices of their products, which do not currently factor in environmental costs, are projected to fan the rapid expansion of Chinese-made solar PV systems around the world, especially in industrial countries that can afford the still-expensive units.

Although China will eventually benefit from this green technology as well as costs decline further, for the time being the industry continues to tread the traditional path of “pollute first, clean up afterwards.” At stake are the underrepresented groups in Chinese society, especially rural farmers who depend on increasingly polluted lands for a living. China’s shining solar industry, while enabling blue skies elsewhere, is leaving behind a scarred landscape at home.

So far, the environment has been the biggest loser in China’s rapid economic growth. The irony of the recent Post exposé is that the environment is not even being considered seriously by those Chinese industries that bear a “green” tag, and whose products support progress toward a better environment. As China becomes more industrialized and strives to meet the insatiable demands of a burgeoning urban middle class, there is every reason to question how long the current state of affairs can last, and how much time it will take before businesses care enough about their impacts to truly protect the environment.

Yingling Liu is manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-D.C. based environmental research organization.