Lead pollution set to rise as solar power booms

The solar photovoltaic (PV) industry is 'well placed' to run a lead take back scheme after new research predicted rocketing levels of pollution from the substance, according to an industry leader.

New research from the University of Tennessee claims lead pollution resulting directly from investments in solar power by 2022 could be the equivalent to one-third of current global lead production across the globe today.

University assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, Chris Cherry, claims solar power, that is heavily reliant on lead batteries, has the potential to release more than 2.4M tonnes of lead pollution in countries like China and India.

Despite picking out the solar industry for criticism the professor goes on to point out that the battery industry is the largest consumer of lead using around 80% of global production.

“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 professor Cherry.

“Without improvements, it is increasingly clear the use of lead batteries will contribute to environmental contamination and lead poisoning among workers and children.”

The academic also points out the lead in the batteries, used for storing solar power where grid infrastructure is too weak, can cause amongst other illness nerve damage, kidney failure and heart problems.

Leading solar panel manufacturer Solarcentury’s chief technology officer,

Dan Davies, suggested battery manufactures, mainly in the automotive industry, were the real culprits but said the PV industry was ‘well placed’ to run a take back scheme.

Mr Davies suggested a possible take back scheme could operate on the same lines as PV take back and recycling plans currently being developed, although these currently only cover European Union.

He told edie.net: “Obviously the issue of lead pollution is serious but it’s incorrect to imply that this predominantly a problem for the solar industry.

“The report states 80% of the lead used today goes into batteries, the bulk of which will be for automotive batteries, surely it is this sector which should be responsible for the development of take back schemes?”

On the subject of a potential take back scheme he added: “This is perhaps additionally important as the use of Lithium Ion batteries and NiMH batteries in very small solar equipment is also likely to proliferate, but the issue is more than just lead.”

The university’s study, which is co-authored with Perry Gottesfeld of Occupational Knowledge International, is in this month’s (September) issue of the journal Energy Policy.

Luke Walsh

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