50 Shades of Green?

  • Building Design Expert
  • 4 years ago


Photovoltaic panels are the global panacea for generation of sustainable energy. As long as we have the sun, we will have a reliable and consistently improving source of ‘free’ electricity. That’s the good news. The bad news revolves around the fact that the manufacture of PV panels includes known carcinogens such as cadmium and lead. Like all modern technology, these things are strictly governed and regulated by European law, or so you would have thought?

Electrical goods sold in the EU ARE strictly regulated as to the quantities of these harmful substances they may contain. However, there is a huge BUT. PV panels do not fall into any of the ten product categories that have been governed by the:

  • Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive
  • Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive

The EU is currently considering revisions to these, but if past experience is an indicator, we will have far more carcinogens in active service than we would think desirable.

The arguments are that these panels are responsibly recycled by specialists at the end of their operational life. In a fire the offending materials, positioned between two layers of glass, are encased in a molten glazed sandwich. That’s the theory anyway. The legislation doesn’t extend to cover instances that might see them vandalised prior to catching fire, thus releasing their cancer fuelling fumes into the atmosphere. So as ever, legislation is not fool proof, and they are only thinking about making it more so.

Green Spec.

Did we, in the construction industry, know deep down that there was never going to be ‘no such thing as a free lunch’? Of course we did. But as ever our decisions, if we ever consciously made them, are governed by the available choices, which are inextricably linked to finance and the overwhelming pressures to pursue alternative energy provision. There, wasn’t hard to find a plausible excuse was it?

Like anything in our unswerving drive for greater sustainability, if we can identify any resolution that will ‘limit the damage’, we’re going to employ it until someone tells us to stop. Then we will find something else.

Electricity, in certain forms, is arguably the most sustainable energy source we have access to, over and above the direct use of fossil fuels. But remember your school-day physics that says “energy cannot be created or destroyed”. We might be able to transform the sun’s rays into an electrical charge but that energy still has an environmental price given the available technology to achieve it.

Technology is constantly looking to surprise us. Californian student Eesha Khare  recently won a $50,000 prize in a competition run by Intel. She used super capacitor technology to produce a way to charge a mobile device in seconds, and increase the known battery lifespan ten fold. The USA has also had a hydrogen fuel cell development programme for over ten years. Having spent over $1B, they are getting ever closer to making it commercially viable. – Amazing, yes, but the common thread remains electricity. The lunch price is coming down, but it’s still not, and I suggest never will be entirely free.

Electricity is the future. When will the future begin? Sometime soon – TBA. The upshot of all this is that with each advance the shade of green alters. Will we need 50 shades of green? No, I think we will require many, many more as that crock of gold appears ever closer.