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[GreenYes] Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China


Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 9, 2008; A01

GAOLONG, China -- The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the
nearby factory pull into his village, he couldn't believe what happened.
Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the
workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they
turned around and drove right back through the gates of their compound
without a word.

This ritual has been going on almost every day for nine months, Li and other
villagers said.
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.

"The land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees
will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite -- it is poisonous, it is
polluting. Human beings can never touch it," said Ren Bingyan, a professor
at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

The situation in Li's village points to the environmental trade-offs the
world is making as it races to head off a dwindling supply of fossil fuels.

Forests are being cleared to grow biofuels like palm oil, but scientists
argue that the disappearance of such huge swaths of forests is contributing
to climate change. Hydropower dams are being constructed to replace
coal-fired power plants, but they are submerging whole ecosystems under
water.

Likewise in China, the push to get into the solar energy market is having
unexpected consequences.

With the prices of oil and coal soaring, policymakers around the world are
looking at massive solar farms to heat water and generate electricity. For
the past four years, however, the world has been suffering from a shortage
of polysilicon -- the key component of sunlight-capturing wafers -- driving
up prices of solar energy technology and creating a barrier to its adoption.

With the price of polysilicon soaring from $20 per kilogram to $300 per
kilogram in the past five years, Chinese companies are eager to fill the
gap.

In China, polysilicon plants are the new dot-coms. Flush with venture
capital and with generous grants and low-interest loans from a central
government touting its efforts to seek clean energy alternatives, more than
20 Chinese companies are starting polysilicon manufacturing plants. The
combined capacity of these new factories is estimated at 80,000 to 100,000
tons -- more than double the 40,000 tons produced in the entire world today.
But Chinese companies' methods for dealing with waste haven't been
perfected.
Because of the environmental hazard, polysilicon companies in the developed
world recycle the compound, putting it back into the production process. But
the high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy
consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees
Fahrenheit for the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from
doing the same. Like Luoyang Zhonggui, other solar plants in China have not
installed technology to prevent pollutants from getting into the environment
or have not brought those systems fully online, industry sources say.

"The recycling technology is of course being thought about, but currently
it's still not mature," said Shi Jun, a former photovoltaic technology
researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Shi, chief executive of Pro-EnerTech, a start-up polysilicon research firm
in Shanghai, said that there's such a severe shortage of polysilicon that
the government is willing to overlook this issue for now.

"If this happened in the United States, you'd probably be arrested," he
said.
An independent, nationally accredited laboratory analyzed a sample of dirt
from the dump site near the Luoyang Zhonggui plant at the request of The
Washington Post. The tests show high concentrations of chlorine and
hydrochloric acid, which can result from the breakdown of silicon
tetrachloride and do not exist naturally in soil. "Crops cannot grow on
this, and it is not suitable for people to live nearby," said Li Xiaoping,
deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang Zhonggui, said
it is "impossible" to think that the company would dump large amounts of
waste into a residential area. "Some of the villagers did not tell the
truth," he said.

However, Wang said the company does release a "minimal amount of waste" in
compliance with all environmental regulations. "We release it in a certain
place in a certain way. Before it is released, it has gone through strict
treatment procedures."

Yi Xusheng, the head of monitoring for the Henan Province Environmental
Protection Agency, said the factory had passed a review before it opened,
but that "it's possible that there are some pollutants in the production
process" that inspectors were not aware of. Yi said the agency would
investigate.

In 2005, when residents of Li's village, Shiniu, heard that a new solar
energy company would be building a factory nearby, they celebrated.

The impoverished farming community of roughly 2,300, near the eastern end of
the Silk Road, had been left behind during China's recent boom. In a country
where the average wage in some areas has climbed to $200 a month, many of
the village's residents make just $200 a year. They had high hopes their new
neighbor would jump-start the local economy and help transform the area into
an industrial hub.

The Luoyang Zhonggui factory grew out of an effort by a national research
institute to improve on a 50-year-old polysilicon refining technology
pioneered by Germany's Siemens. Concerned about intellectual property
issues, Siemens has held off on selling its technology to the Chinese. So
the Chinese have tried to create their own.

Last year, the Luoyang Zhonggui factory was estimated to have produced less
than 300 tons of polysilicon, but it aims to increase that tenfold this year
-- making it China's largest operating plant. It is a key supplier to
Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong
recently topped the list of the richest people in China.

Made from the Earth's most abundant substance -- sand -- polysilicon is
tricky to manufacture. It requires huge amounts of energy, and even a small
misstep in the production can introduce impurities and ruin an entire batch.
The other main challenge is dealing with the waste. For each ton of
polysilicon produced, the process generates at least four tons of silicon
tetrachloride liquid waste.

When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride transforms into acids and
poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people who breathe the air
dizzy and can make their chests contract.

While it typically takes companies two years to get a polysilicon factory up
and running properly, many Chinese companies are trying to do it in half
that time or less, said Richard Winegarner, president of Sage Concepts, a
California-based consulting firm.
As a result, Ren of Hebei Industrial University said, some Chinese plants
are stockpiling the hazardous substances in the hopes that they can figure
out a way to dispose of it later: "I know these factories began to store
silicon tetrachloride in drums two years ago."
Pro-EnerTech's Shi says other companies -- including Luoyang Zhonggui -- are
just dumping wherever they can.

"Theoretically, companies should collect it all, process it to get rid of
the poisonous stuff, then release it or recycle. Zhonggui currently doesn't
have the technology. Now they are just releasing it directly into the air,"
said Shi, who recently visited the factory.
Shi estimates that Chinese companies are saving millions of dollars by not
installing pollution recovery.

He said that if environmental protection technology is used, the cost to
produce one ton is approximately $84,500. But Chinese companies are making
it at $21,000 to $56,000a ton.
In sharp contrast to the gleaming white buildings in Zhonggui's new gated
complex in Gaolong, the situation in the villages surrounding it is bleak.

About nine months ago, residents of Li's village, which begins about 50
yards from the plant, noticed that their crops were wilting under a dusting
of white powder. Sometimes, there was a hazy cloud up to three feet high
near the dumping site; one person tending crops there fainted, several
villagers said. Small rocks began to accumulate in kettles used for boiling
faucet water.

Each night, villagers said, the factory's chimneys released a loud whoosh of
acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. "It's poison
air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can't sit outside. You have to close all
the doors and windows," said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he
worries about his 1-year-old son's health.
The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up
to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy
field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.

The worst part, said Li, 53, who lives with his son and granddaughter in the
village, is that "they go outside the gates of their own compound to dump
waste."
"We didn't know how bad it was until the August harvest, until things
started dying," he said.
Early this year, one of the villagers put some of the contaminated soil in a
plastic bag and went to the local environmental bureau. They never got back
to him.

Zhang Zhenguo, 45, a farmer and small businessman, said he has a theory as
to why: "They didn't test it because the government supports the plant."

Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.
View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company
 


 
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