If you saw this article on Sunday, it is definitely something to pay attention to. It is an investigative piece regarding the environmental damage that Chinese polysilicon manufacturers are inflicting upon citizens.
In China, a country buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial growth, such stories of environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It's a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the byproduct of polysilicon production -- silicon tetrachloride -- is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.I’m in two minds about this piece. As far as investigative journalism goes, it’s incomplete and tries to draw very large conclusions from a very small sample. As an environmentalist and solar enthusiast, I am deeply troubled. After all, whether it is lead paint in toys or poison in pet food, China has a contentious past in this area.
The key is to point out (as the article hints at) is that this type of production method for polysilicon is not acceptable, nor is it necessary. Unlike oil sands, or coal extraction, there are environmentally-sound methods of making poly-silicon that need not drastically impact the price. (while the article points to the cost savings in producing poly-silicon in this fashion, it neglects to point out the very limited role this plays in the overall price of a solar system).
Beyond this however, I believe this article is part of the first wave of the inevitable solar backlash we will be seeing (which I wrote about in my 2008 predictions post). I imagine that the next six months will bring a number of articles about the high cost of solar relative to other technologies, environmental damage in its production, the over-valuation of key solar stocks, etc.
It will be important to answer these charges (all accurate to varying degrees) with honesty and transparency, and point to the considerable future value of solar - its expected large reduction in costs as we move down the experience curve, its potential benefits to utilities, consumers and the economy, and the immense future importance of building a national clean, distributed generation network.