The Dirty Secret Behind “Clean” Solar Energy

Solar power promises clean energy But there’s a dark secret
They’re not nearly as clean as we’ve been told.  Welcome to America Uncovered. I’m Chris Chappell. The sun. Friend to all living creatures… Except the Irish. Besides providing life, the sun 
is also a great source of energy. The Biden administration has said 
they want solar energy to power nearly   half of the US electricity supply by 2050. But we’re still a long way from that. To get there, “Yearly solar capacity 
additions will need to double annually   through 2025, before quadrupling from 2020′s 
level each year between 2025 and 2030.” Could we even reach that goal without 
needing people walking around in solar suits? I can’t tell if this is the 
coolest or lamest thing I’ve ever seen.

According to a new study by 
the US Department of Energy,   the US has the potential to get to 
a zero-carbon grid through solar. According to Energy Secretary Jennifer 
Granholm , "The study [shows] that   solar… could produce enough electricity to 
power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035   and employ as many as 1.5 
million people in the process." That *sounds* great. Is it realistic? Not sure. 
Especially the 1.5 million jobs part—since   America hardly makes any solar panels these days. So, sorry if you were hoping to be this 
rejected G.I. Joe ninja for Halloween this year. Solar panels were invented in America by Bell Labs 
in1954. Nearly all the solar energy patents since   then have been American.

In 1978, America was 
making 95 percent of the world’s solar panels.   But by the 1980s, globalization 
began happening on a big scale. First, Japan started taking 
over solar panel manufacturing.   And if Americans thought that was bad, by 
the late 2000s it was dominated by China. “Today, only one of the world’s 10 largest 
makers of solar cells is American.” Most solar panels Americans buy 
nowadays are assembled in China, And when they’re made in China—it’s 
not exactly “green” energy. I’ll explain after the break. Welcome back. Americans love solar panels. We’d slap 'em on our burgers if we 
could. Now that’s a power lunch.  But the true cost of solar panels is 
far greater than what we’ve been paying. To make solar panels, you need a lot of base 
metals, including aluminum, copper, and zinc. The use of all three metals in the 
solar sector is set to double by 2040. Solar panels also need cobalt , a 
metal used for building batteries. But a lot of these metals come from 
countries with very poor labor laws.

Fun fact, if you say “poor labor 
laws” in a mirror five times, China will appear behind you and put you to work. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo,   or DRC. It’s one of the biggest countries in 
Africa—and also one of the least democratic. It’s also one of the world’s top 
sources of rare-earth metals. And fortunately for the big corporations 
that want to extract those metals,   the DRC has basically no human 
rights standards for workers. “These guys are climbing into these holes 
straddling railroad ties and hauling up   tons of cobalt with makeshift rope and no 
proper safety equipmen or supportt whatsoever.”  “In January 2016, a human rights report alerted 
the world to how cobalt is often dug up by hand   under unsafe, sometimes deadly, conditions 
by subsistence miners including children.” And China just so happens to operate a lot 
of these unsafe cobalt mines in the DRC.

Alright, who in the DRC said “poor 
labor laws” in the mirror five times?! Mining in the DRC sounds pretty bad.   But not compared to how China treats many of 
its own workers in solar panel manufacturing. See, making solar panels is quite labor intensive.   It starts with making photovoltaic 
cells, or “PV” cells for short.  The first couple steps of making these 
PV cells involves processing quartz,   turning it into metallurgical grade silicon, 
and then refining that into polysilicon. That sounds complicated.   Is China finding high-skilled workers 
and paying them well for their expertise? Nope! They’re using slave labor. According to this report about 
forced labor in global supply chains, “95% of solar modules rely on one primary 
material—solar-grade polysilicon.” And China accounts for 75% of 
the world’s polysilicon supply.   Most of that comes from Xinjiang, 
which is a region of China.

And if you’ve been watching my other show, China 
Uncensored, you know that by some estimates,   millions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang 
have been put into forced labor camps.  Yeah, that sounds bad. It also looks bad, when caught on drone footage. Five of the world’s top six producers 
of polysilicon are in China,   and four of them have facilities in Xinjiang. And all four polysilicon manufacturers in Xinjiang   “have reported their participation 
in labor transfer or labor placement   programs”—which is a politically correct 
way of saying they use slave labor. I didn’t realize you could just 
make up euphemisms for atrocities. No, your honor. He wasn’t “murdered.” He   participated in a “bullet to 
the face placement program.” The reason why China relies on manual labor 
in Xinjiang is that solar panels are fragile.

“Around 0.3mm thick, they can be 
easily broken if not handled properly.   As a result, production in the past has 
largely been dependent on manual handling.” According to Goldman Sachs , low 
“costs from ‘cheaper labor’ were   a key factor in China’s ability 
to lower [production] costs.” Why do you think the US can’t compete 
with cheap Chinese solar panels? With their methods, China never has 
to worry about a labor shortage. But if you think child labor in Africa and ethnic 
slave labor in China aren’t reason enough to   think twice about solar panels, stick around 
after the break. Because it gets even darker. Welcome back. What’s the big deal if solar panels 
use a little slave labor, right? If you don’t care about that, 
you might still care about the   devastating impact solar panels can have on the 
environment—especially when they’re made in China. Wait, the country that doesn’t 
care about enslaving mothers   also doesn’t care about Mother 
Nature? Color me surprised. See, making solar panels requires a lot of energy, 
and that energy’s gotta come from somewhere. China’s solution? Tons of cheap coal. 
That coal is a key reason why China’s   greenhouse gas emissions exceed those of 
all other developed countries *combined*.

Luckily for China, there are huge coal reserves 
in Xinjiang—you know, the slave labor region. “For years, China’s low-cost, coal-fired 
electricity has given the country’s solar-panel   manufacturers a competitive advantage, 
allowing them to dominate global markets.” “Concerns are mounting in the U.S. and Europe 
that the solar industry’s reliance on Chinese   coal will create a big increase 
in emissions in the coming years   as manufacturers rapidly scale up 
production of solar panels to meet demand.” You know, the kind of scaled-up demand that 
the Biden administration is now pushing for. Which is actually very progressive of 
Biden, since all that coal will lead to more black and brown clouds in the 
sky. Representation matters. But scientists say solar panels 
are worth it in the long-term.   The energy they produce could offset the amount 
of CO2 expended to make them in the first place. I’d say don’t hold your breath on that, but 
considering how polluted the skies in China are,   holding your breath is usually the best option. But there’s another problem. Solar panels also produce tons of toxic waste. And not the cool kind that makes Ninja Turtles. Turning metallurgical-grade 
silicon into polysilicon   creates a toxic compound 
called silicon tetrachloride.

“Most manufacturers recycle this 
waste to make more polysilicon.   But the reprocessing equipment can 
cost tens of millions of dollars.” If it’s thrown away and exposed to water,   silicon tetrachloride releases acids that 
destroy soil and creates harmful fumes. But even if we reduce this waste 
during manufacturing, solar panels   eventually stop working—especially 
if they’re poorly made in China.   And when their lifespan is over, 
they leave behind toxic trash. According to the International Renewable Energy 
Agency , “As the global [photovoltaic] market   increases, so will the volume of decommissioned 
PV panels, and large amounts of annual waste are   anticipated by the early 2030s.

Growing PV panel 
waste presents a new environmental challenge.” The Harvard Business Review 
says, “the sheer volume of   discarded panels will soon pose a risk 
of existentially damaging proportions.” This is almost as bad as that island 
of trash floating in the Pacific. “The industry’s current [recycling] capacity 
is woefully unprepared for the deluge of   waste that is likely to come [because the] 
financial incentive to invest in recycling   has never been very strong in solar.” That’s because it’s a lot more expensive   to recycle a solar panel than to 
just send it off to landfills. But sending it to landfills is 
horrible for the environment. And not just because the possums in the landfills   using solar panels to get 
a tan will get skin cancer. Toxic materials can leak out as the 
discarded solar panels break down.  “While discarded modules have to 
be disposed of properly in Europe,   most other countries don't 
yet have such regulations.” And if China is willing to make solar panels 
using slave labor and coal-fired power plants,   do you really think they’re going to make 
sure old solar panels are recycled properly? Even in the coolest-slash-lamest way possible? So what do you think? Leave your comments below.

And if you like this show—please 
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episode to help us keep the show going. Once again, I’m Chris Chappell. 
Thanks for watching America Uncovered..

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