Taxpayer-Funded Solar Company Leaves Environmental, Financial Mess

Taxpayer-Funded Solar Company Leaves Environmental, Financial Mess
October 28, 2013

Paul Chesser

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes ... (read full bio)

It may be the height of irony that a company that was supposed to soar to the top of the new clean energy economy, with the help of U.S. taxpayers to undergird President Obama’s stimulus visions, has instead left both an environmental and financial mess after its demise.

Yet that’s exactly the case with miserable failure Abound Solar, which the president’s Department of Energy thought so much of, they awarded it a $400 million loan guarantee. That proposition quickly soured and the government halted payouts after about $70 million. The company went bankrupt in June 2012, leaving taxpayers out between $40 million and $60 million that was never recovered.

 

There was other collateral damage, not the least of which was a huge toxic mess from unused panels and abandoned chemicals at Abound’s former facilities. The environmental nightmare was discovered earlier this year, but this month – thanks to an investigation by the Northern Colorado Business Report – an estimate of the amount of damage was revealed. According to documents the publication obtained, cleanup at Abound’s Longmont location is expected to cost as much as $3.7 million because of the materials left behind.

“As lawyers, regulators, bankruptcy officials and the landlord spar over the case,” NCBR reported, “the building lies in disrepair, too contaminated to lease.”

In addition 2,000 of Abound’s panels that were “deemed unsellable” – and included among its toxic waste – have mysteriously disappeared. They had been sitting in a Denver warehouse but now the bankruptcy trustee won’t disclose what happened to them. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment doesn’t know where they ended up, either. If a coal, oil or gas company pulled something like that the EPA would send out SWAT teams and the U.S. Marshals to track down the offenders, bankrupt or not.

Not only is the site contaminated, but Abound’s former landlord is left with a building he cannot lease. The Boulder-based owner has tried in vain to get the bankruptcy trustee to clean the facility that, in its present condition, would “place humans at imminent and significant health risk.” Among the contaminants is cancer-causing cadmium, which was used to produce the thin film placed on the panels. The landlord is now suing Abound’s insurer because he says the company wrongly denied a claim for the cost to clean the site.

There is so much filth in the solar industry that its advocates – i.e., the big environmental pressure groups and government subsidy-seekers – don’t care to tell you about. According to NCBR, Colorado categorized Abound as a “large quantity generator” of hazardous waste, in part as the result of broken glass and rinse water used to manufacture solar panels. And a 2009 white paper (PDF) co-authored by San Jose State assistant professor Dustin Mulvaney for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition listed other potential “end-of-life” hazards from solar panel production that included cadmium telluride, crystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, copper indium selenide, copper indium gallium selenide, gallium arsenide, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, chromium, and lead.

The better-known stimulus loan recipient that failed – Solyndra – also required a big hazardous waste cleanup after it went bankrupt and abandoned its property. Of the Solyndra mess, Mulvaney said, “Essentially it looks like they left a pretty big mess behind…. Materials labeled hazardous waste require a lot more protocol, so it’s actually a lot more expensive to clean.”

While the mass pollution caused by the production of solar panels has been largely ignored by the mainstream press, there are signs they are starting to pay attention. In February the Associated Press reported how the industry “grapples” with hazardous waste, although the story indicated that it appears some don’t try to address it at all.

According to AP, new solar companies send their hazardous waste to outside facilities because they haven’t yet invested in treatment equipment. How much toxic swill created from the taxpayer-subsidized production is generally unknown and unaccounted for, despite efforts in some places to keep track. Even in California – which is supposed to have among the most stringent reporting requirements on hazardous materials – it seems that solar is largely getting a “pass” on disclosure, despite the state’s leading role for production of panels. Of a list of 41 manufacturers AP compiled for the Golden State, a public records request of the Department of Toxic Substances Control showed only 17 of them reported any waste.

As for the amount of waste that was reported, those who should know better pleaded ignorance.

“The state records show the 17 companies, which had 44 manufacturing facilities in California, produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011…,” AP reported. “Several solar energy experts said they have not calculated the industry’s total waste and were surprised at what the records showed.”

The same promoters who advertise the unworkable economics of solar, who try to get people to believe inconsistent sunshine can meet the same electricity demands as fossil fuels while advocating endless massive subsidies, have totally ignored the waste issue.

“The records also show several other Silicon Valley solar facilities created millions of pounds of toxic waste without selling a single solar panel, while they were developing their technology or fine-tuning their production…,” AP reported. “The vast majority of solar companies that generated hazardous waste in California have not been cited for waste-related pollution violations, although three had minor violations on file.”

So yet again the “renewable” energy business enjoys a more lax standard than do coal, oil and natural gas producers. For example, bird populations harmed by oil spills require steep fines and harsh judgments from government and environmental groups, but those dismembered by wind farms largely get a pass.

Solar not only produces the hazardous waste, but the disposal of the toxins are also not accounted for in calculations of “life-cycle” analyses of the carbon dioxide (or “greenhouse gas”) impacts from their production. Such studies are used to compare whether the cradle-to-grave emissions that come as the result of certain energy-producing activities are greater than others. The analysts AP interviewed admitted that waste disposal was not included in their calculations. According to Mulvaney, the San Jose State professor, those emissions are not insignificant. For example, “6.2 million pounds of waste by heavy-duty tractor-trailer from Fremont, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, to a site 1,800 miles away could add 5 percent to a particular product’s carbon footprint,” AP reported.

However, there are a few in the business who say they strive to be responsible about solar’s waste. According to Northern Colorado Business Report, Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar took 11,000 of Abound Solar’s unused panels to recycle them, and took some of Abound’s leftover processed cadmium and tellurium for its own solar panels.

“We believe the solar industry as a whole should start implementing responsible disposal and recycling practices by learning from the sustainability practices adopted by more mature industries, enabling solar to deliver on its promise as a clean and sustainable renewable energy,” said First Solar spokesman Steve Krum. “Every player in this relatively young industry has a responsibility to bring forward solutions for end-of-life management.”

Unfortunately it appears the vast majority in the industry are in it to gain access to the government money that is available, rather than to responsibly deliver a product that is demanded by an eager free market. That will be the case indefinitely, so we will continue to see many more Solyndras and Abound Solars, whose toxic waste will be left unattended or be sent to who-knows-where.

Paul Chesser

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes ... (read full bio)