Solar’s lead balloon of pollution in developing countries

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From the University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Solar industry responsible for lead emissions in developing countries

Solar power is not all sunshine. It has a dark side—particularly in developing countries, according to a new study by a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, engineering professor.

A study by Chris Cherry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, found that solar power heavily reliant on lead batteries has the potential to release more than 2.4 million tons of lead pollution in China and India.

Lead poisoning causes numerous adverse health effects, including damage to the central nervous system, the kidneys, the cardiovascular system, and the reproductive system. In children, blood lead concentration is associated with learning impairments, as well as hyperactive and violent behavior.

His study, co-authored with Perry Gottesfeld of Occupational Knowledge International (OK International), appears in the September issue of the journal Energy Policy.

Lead pollution predicted to result from investments in solar power by 2022 is equivalent to one-third of current global lead production. The researchers, who relied on official government plans for deploying solar power to make these projections, also found that the countries have large amounts of lead leak into the environment from mining, smelting, battery manufacturing, and recycling—33 percent in China and 22 percent in India. Also, a large percentage of new solar power systems continues to be reliant on lead batteries for energy storage due to the inadequate power grid in these countries.

The study’s release comes on the heels of reports of a large number of mass lead poisoning incidents around lead battery recycling and manufacturing plants in China and the announcement that the country recently closed 583 of these facilities.

“Investments in environmental controls in the lead battery industry, along with improvements in battery take-back policies, are needed to complement deployment of solar power in these countries,” said Cherry. “Without improvements, it is increasingly clear that the use of lead batteries will contribute to environmental contamination and lead poisoning among workers and children.”

The battery industry is the largest consumer of lead, using approximately 80 percent of global lead production. Lead battery manufacturing is growing rapidly in much of the world to meet demand for batteries for solar power and other applications. With the authors’ projected emissions, they say this will impact public health and contribute to environmental contamination.

“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,” said Gottesfeld. “Without major improvements in the manufacturing and recycling lead batteries in these countries, we expect that lead poisoning will increase as the industry grows.”

The projections outlined in the study, while based on plans articulated by these two countries, are likely to be repeated throughout much of the developing world, such as in Africa.

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OK International is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving public health in developing countries through innovative strategies to reduce exposures to industrial pollutants. For more information, visit www.okinternational.org.

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48 thoughts on “Solar’s lead balloon of pollution in developing countries

  1. Photovoltaic modules are presently excluded from the WEEE- and ROHS- directives – I love it when they enact tough rules, then give exemptions for all their friends.

  2. I think they should make hydrogen with solar panels and then have fuel cells to run their stuff. Then it could be even more expensive to setup.

  3. Lead acid batteries can only be deeply discharged about 1000 times, giving them about a 3 year lifetime for solar power. In contrast:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel-iron_battery
    The nickel-iron battery (NiFe battery) is a storage battery having a nickel(III) oxide-hydroxide cathode and an iron anode, with an electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. The active materials are held in nickel-plated steel tubes or perforated pockets. It is a very robust battery which is tolerant of abuse, (overcharge, overdischarge, and short-circuiting) and can have very long life even if so treated.[6] It is often used in backup situations where it can be continuously charged and can last for more than 20 years.

  4. Atmospheric lead is — as you might expect — quite heavy, and quickly returns to earth, Schools in Australia have been largely insulated from lead pollution coming off roads by building earth ‘dykes’ of 1.5m or so between the road and the school. The lead is then largely trapped by the vegetation on the dyke. Presumably similar structures around factories using lead would have similar effects. In short, this is something we know how to fix.

  5. Not too fast. The jury is out on Pb lead. The lead-in-children episode is similar to the Establishment takeover of Global Warming. Dissenting views were suppressed. Supporting views received lavish funding.
    http://dnacih.com/SILVA.htm
    The authors of the paper above spent more than 50 years of research on lead, in high Occupational Health positions. They were world authorities until a new hypothesis was proposed, as it should have been in routine scientific progress. Unfortunately, I have seen no credible paper rebutting their ‘reverse causation’ logic. There is much more that could be said, because I managed the disposal of a property we acquired after a battery recycling factory had been closed and bulldozed.
    Unleaded gas for cars was likely to be unjustified; think of the extra CO2 that exercise put in the air.

  6. True for now: using (subsidized) solar cells today is only economical by connecting them to lead batteries. I should know as I have both here in India. I could also charge them with grid current though.
    The main problem in India is the unreliability of the power grid: daily announced and unannounced (a thunder cloud) power cuts, spikes up to 400 V and down to 100 V, while we are supposed to get 230 V 50 Hz. This is were these batteries come in very handy.
    The lead is definitely recycled, but I would not want to take a look in those “facilities”.

  7. Matin 457 says:
    I think they should make hydrogen with solar panels and then have fuel cells to run their stuff. Then it could be even more expensive to setup.
    -Don’t worry, it has/is being done!

  8. And lets not forget all the little electric and hybrid cars that need batteries too. I’ve been warning my green friends for years, that the effects of battery production (mining operations, the metals themselves, and chemicals – ie acid) all have to be made from something somewhere. Yes there is recycling of these materials, but they aren’t without their risks to the environment as well. And NONE of the components of batteries are as recyclable as CO2. Is their fear of CO2 still rational when stacked up against the realities of a world where every last car has to store it’s full motive power in a battery?

  9. Yeah go green our mining industry loves it. Funny we knew this 30yrs ago, solar/ wind no good when you need power, make lots of power when you don’t need it. No viable storage medium then and 30 yrs on no viable storage now. Viable being environmentally neutral and cost effective.

  10. Has everybody forgot, the cost to install and maintain these “green dreams”.
    It is a non-starter without subsidies.
    It is a death knell for impoverished countries.
    Every car in the U.S. is powered by a lead battery.
    Don’t know where this study thinks it is going.
    If it is going after lead, it must have about 2000 years of research it can build upon.

  11. How about these “intended” consequences?

    Ever wanted to know how one of the largest suppliers of PV in China made it so cheap?

    How clean is Solar anyway?

    Frankly, in china, it is very bad because their manufacturing processes are powered by truly dirty coal plants, toxics are routinely released into the air and contaminate both land and water, and sterilize land such that crops just don’t grow anymore.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=explosive-gas-silane-used-to-make-photovoltaics

    More specifically, lets talk about polysilicon manufacturing, silane gas and silicon tetrachloride.

    This article is a stark reminder of the realities of the Green Illusion….select snippets below.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/08/AR2008030802595.html

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

    Luoyang Zhonggui factory makes polysilicon, is one of China’s largest operating plants, and is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China.

    Chinese companies are saving millions of dollars by not installing pollution recovery.
    If environmental protection technology is used, the cost to produce one ton of polysilicon is approximately $84,500. But Chinese companies are making it at $21,000 to $56,000a ton.

    In sharp contrast to the gleaming white buildings in Zhonggui’s new gated complex in Gaolong, the situation in the villages surrounding it is bleak.

    The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.

    The worst part, said Li, 53, who lives with his son and granddaughter in the village, is that “they go outside the gates of their own compound to dump waste.”

    “We didn’t know how bad it was until the August harvest, until things started dying,” he said.

    SO….suntech solar panels adorn many a roof and array in the US and California today, earning ‘carbon credits’….so I’m wondering, how many acres of Chinese farmland are sterilized and polluted each year per MW produced?

    Other links:
    http://solarscorecard.com/?cat=9

    http://www.fastcompany.com/1744123/embargo-until-arpil-5-at-6-am-et-silicon-valley-toxics-coalition-reveals-the-dirtiness-of-th

  12. So we get rid of evil coal because it has evil CO2 and we replace it with lead. We ban real light bulbs because they use coal and we replace them with mercury. Great thinking. Do greens even think?

  13. F. Ross says:
    August 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Oh my! Unintended consequences again.
    ==================================================================
    It is hard to believe they are unintended. They could be, but then the people enacting these policies would have to have the collective IQ of my shoe size for that to be true. Which, isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredulous.

    It isn’t like the materials would come from a first world nation, the environmental restraints are too suffocating to make it profitable. So, it goes to nations with less environmental restraints.

    Lead/shmead, we got what we wanted! Sun absorbers that almost work! Who cares about the stuff over there? It isn’t the environment we live in! Solar panels are good for the environment! And they create jobs!

    Oh, wait…….

    It can’t be unintended. They were told. Of course, the message was immediately dismissed because it came from fascist, people hating, money grubbing, bought by oil, extremists. But they were told nonetheless.

  14. Geoff Sherrington says:
    August 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    The authors of the study you cite argue that pica (abnormal appetites) leading to ingestion of lead is a result of mental deficiency, and hence that mental deficiency is not a result of ingested lead. This was an argument put forth by Robert Kehoe in the 1920s: he was the US leader in lead science prior to c 1960 who was incidentally in the employ of National Lead and whose science was used to promote the use of tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive.

    I believe the 1970s and later studies that linked lead with reduced mental capacity, following the lead of Claire Patterson’s methods for detecting minute amounts of lead contaminants in the air, were based on children being exposed to leaded gasoline residues in the inner cities, which exposed slight loss of mental ability with a certain level of exposure, that became more serious with greater exposure. Elevated lead levels were found in the bloodstreams of most ordinary Americans, as a result to exposure to leaded gasoline fumes, so I doubt any claim that all the studies in which any effect was found were based on children or other subjects who ate or ingested lead, as is implied somewhere in the article.

    Sorry, but given the history of scientific apologetics for the practices of the lead industry — which in the case of National Lead’s Dutch Boy Painter, sold lead paint via advertising it to children and playing up its safe and healthful qualities — I am skeptical of the stance taken by the authors. Their position is positively regressive.

    Incidentally, as a Ph.D. historian, I can attest to having found, in early childhood, the taste of lead quite delightful (licking my father’s lead soldiers) but fortunately was prevented from indulging this taste by my horrified parents. No need (presumably) to link a taste for sweet lead to pica or my having been mentally deficient. The Ancient Romans liked the flavour, too – they used it to sweeten wine.

  15. There are always un-intended consequences whenever a decision is made. It doesn’t matter a cracker what the motivation of the decision maker was or is.

    What is stupid, is not making sure the decision’s outcome is productive and ultimately beneficial to the majority of stakeholders concerned. Making sure decisions start with this criteria goes some way to allowing for some “wriggle room” and therefore being able to deal with un-intended consequences more effectively.

    Most “Green” initiatives have some sort of manipulated ideology as their basis, unintended consequences don’t factor a jot when it comes to ideology. Does the decision fit within the ideology? If “yes” then “lets go”, if not “find an initiative that does”.

  16. Funny how some people instantly embraced this “finding” here just because it says solar power is bad. I don’t find this work any less crappy than the finding about AGW causing mental disorder.

  17. “ntfish says:
    August 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm”

    And in the UK, lead, among other items like dead animals etc, was added to cider. Eventually a condition called “Devonshire colic” was proven to be a result lead in cider.

  18. James S;
    One error in your good post, above: “Which, isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredulous.”
    Let me fix the grammar and syntax: “Which isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredible.” Only people can be incredulous (or credulous, for that matter).
    And there’s hardly an onion-skin’s thickness difference between “out of the question” and “incredible”.

  19. “”””” Brian H says:

    September 1, 2011 at 12:28 am

    James S;
    One error in your good post, above: “Which, isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredulous.”
    Let me fix the grammar and syntax: “Which isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredible.” Only people can be incredulous (or credulous, for that matter).
    And there’s hardly an onion-skin’s thickness difference between “out of the question” and “incredible”. “””””

    I think if you check with The Word Man; Dr Richard Lederer, the world’s foremost authority on the English Language, you will find that “incredulous” is one of those “negatives”, for which there is no non-negative (credulous).
    For example, you can be “disgruntled” ; but nobody is ever “gruntled”; there’s no such word.

    But I agree with you that “incredulous” is the wrong word; and it is very often misused as James s just did.

    PS there’s no “undisgruntled” either.

  20. From the post (bold mine):
    “The researchers, who relied on official government plans for deploying solar power to make these projections, […]”

    What!? No model?! Real numbers from plans on the books?!
    Then it looks like the researchers might have some good numbers that only need to be scaled back by the number of government programs that don’t get off the ground.

    Hopefully, it will be “better than we thought.”

  21. Lead in the air or in the food chain diminishes children’s IQ, that fact is all that is needed for control. China has a long way to go, and the fools that embrace green technology have a lot of thinking to do.

  22. My understanding (I never liked ‘history’ and didn’t study it, but) there were are two things, in combination, that brought down the Roman Empire and resulted in The Dark Ages in Europe.
    These2 things were, in no particular order:
    Lead (used in their plumbing/drinking water supplies disrupted their thinking)
    Massive bureaucracy (everyone wanted to be a tax collector/spender and to tell everyone else what to do, how and when to do it and then charge or fine them for the privilege, or not as appropriate)

    Does that sound familiar to anyone, especially if you change Lead = CO2…….

  23. As usual, it would seem that the problems are arising not so much because of the toxicity of lead and its compounds (which is hardly news) but because of the short-sighted short-termism of present-day economics, which encourages companies to put financial profit above any environmental (or, indeed, any other) consideration. As a tech for many years, I have used lead on numerous occasions, and (by responsibly not dumping “inconvenient” waste materials into the environment) caused no problems with its continuing use wherever it is appropriate.

    So much easier, though, for our bureaucratic overlords just to ooze forth another “thou shalt not” ukase to “solve” the problem, as with mercury, CFCs, asbestos … declare it illegal, export the problem to some suffering poor country, and forget it. The problems may be biochemical, but the cause of them, as of so many problems, is our defective world economic system.

  24. Not the place for a debate about lead toxicity because it rapidly gets complicated, down to sampling placental blood and following the IQ of little babies to see if they were impaired. Needleman is the main Establishment name. Since ingestion by mouth was the most likely intake for children, Pam da Silva reviewed estimates of the weight of solids ingested daily by children. Average estimates varied, according to different authors, over 2 orders of magnitude. It’s from here that we learned of the confusion that can be generated through concepts like Climate Sensitivity to GHG.
    BTW, re the levelled battery recycling cite, we were prepared to dedicate it for public use. Our corporate solicitor suggested a logical use – a graveyard that allowed lead-lined coffins.

  25. Brian H says:
    September 1, 2011 at 12:28 am

    James S;
    ——————————————————-
    lol, Thanks Brian……….. I’ll blame the beer.

    James

  26. To join a couple of posts together: instead of burning coal, and instead of vast arrays of solar panels, why not lay out vast arrays of lumps of coal in the desert and find a way of converting the absorbed /reradiated heat into electricity?

    /sarc

  27. But at least we can feel better about ourselves because we don’t have to look out the window and see the “carbon” coming out of all those smokestacks.

  28. Look on the bright side, if the Chinese are using up the lead for the solar batteries, there will be less available for them to put in the paint on the children’s toys that they send us. Plus the neurological damage to their kids from the extra environmental lead might help us catch up to them in math. A double win for us I’d say.

  29. “Credulous” is a perfectly good word; it means believing things without considering evidence, either pro or con. Only the leaders of the watermelon movement are cynical. The vast majority of them are credulous. It’s “incredulous” that’s the defective formation.

    ::shrug:: This is just another example of “real estate agent environmentalism”. The pollution doesn’t happen on their local turf, therefore it doesn’t happen.

    Regards,
    Ric

  30. tom T says:
    August 31, 2011 at 8:46 pm
    “Do greens even think?”
    Yes, but they don’t have a knowledge base. Lead? Poison. Lithium? Rare. Nickel? Main ore is a sulphide…acid rain. All extraction methods require huge amounts of energy and leave toxic tailings. But that doesn’t matter, because they don’t KNOW that. The concept of baseload eludes the idealist. They figure that you can use a paint-on solar cell to smelt Spodumene.

  31. James Sexton says:
    August 31, 2011 at 8:57 pm
    F. Ross says:
    August 31, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Oh my! Unintended consequences again.
    ==================================================================
    It is hard to believe they are unintended. They could be, but then the people enacting these policies would have to have the collective IQ of my shoe size for that to be true. Which, isn’t out of the question, but it is just incredulous.

    It isn’t like the materials would come from a first world nation, the environmental restraints are too suffocating to make it profitable. So, it goes to nations with less environmental restraints.

    Lead/shmead, we got what we wanted! Sun absorbers that almost work! Who cares about the stuff over there? It isn’t the environment we live in! Solar panels are good for the environment! And they create jobs!

    Oh, wait…….

    It can’t be unintended. They were told. Of course, the message was immediately dismissed because it came from fascist, people hating, money grubbing, bought by oil, extremists. But they were told nonetheless.

    Consequences don’t matter. Only intentions. And we can gauge intentions by parsing speech for adherence to approved politically correct and environmentally correct principals.

  32. This isn’t about solar energy or a specific technology but about lacking environmental regulation in developing countries. Ever heard of Bhopal? Whatever industrial process gets transplanted to a third world nation will be more polluting and dangerous there than in the West. The answer to this is not abandoning this or promoting that technology but to enforce the same environmental standards everywhere.

  33. Lead – what lead?
    SANYO HIT Technology

    ■All HIT Modules are lead and emissions free.

    The new NxxxSE modules are the successors to the successful NKHE5 modules. They are based on the same HIT cell technology and have the same electrical characteristics as their predecessors.

    To bring up to 25W more on the same Module size (in comparison with our NKHE5 modules), we improved our technology with:

    1) An improved cell efficiency up to 21,6%:

  34. Tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline to boost the octane rating. Premium used to be called “ethyl”. “Unleaded” takes more refining to get the same octane number, thus it costs more. Lead had to be removed not for health issues, but to allow catalytic converters to function.

    Lead acid batteries? I thought we all used NiMH or Lithium. Silly me. (/sarc)

    We need a better battery.

  35. The sad fact is that solar and wind are safe and clean is a myth.
    Solar is intermittent, requires water, needs storage or a new transmission grid because they are in ‘new’ locations. The panel production involves toxic waste with little or no mitigation record.
    The wind farms are a menace to birds, are intermittent, require mechanical upkeep, require storage and a new transmission grid because they are in ‘new’ locations.
    The EPA, green lobby & NIMBYs say ‘no’ to building these systems almost anywhere they are proposed from Cape Cod to Panoche Valley in rural San Benito County, CA.

  36. It’s a marvel it is, the fallacious logical reasoning of the climate communist hippies. Spend trillions of dollar and trillions of euros and trillions of yuans to maybe save the earth from what could maybe be a potential unproven threat from too much plant food in about 90 years by polluting the earth with the new green products mercury and lead. It’s a rock solid religion that CAGW (pseudo)science.

  37. May I ask you Anthony, as soon as I saw that solar array it appeared to me to be a solar heating array, i.e. water or fluid filled rather than electrical. I completely agree with the contents of the topic, but could you check out that array as it just does not look like an electrical array and therefore not relevant to the topic. You can delete the comment if I am correct or slay me if I am not!

  38. NN;
    “politically correct and environmentally correct principals.” Who would they be? Jones, Mann, Hansen? It seems to me to be a very bad principle to rely on PC or EC principals.
    ;)
    (Yes, I know you were being sarc/-astic. )

  39. If that pic is of the Marstal Solar installation, then, yes, it functions as a district heating soource-not a PV installation.
    Still a nice picture of a solar cell array.

  40. @cyclodoc Solar can be installed on rooftops in towns and cities, and won’t require new transmission in those cases. Malls, big-box stores, warehouses, factories, etc – all good sites where solar panels can be installed and you can also turn parking areas around them into solar carports, providing both power and shade. While solar may be intermittent, its peak production is well-matched to demand during the summer and for most of the year for the southern states.

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