Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China
By Ariana Eunjung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 9, 2008;
GAOLONG, China -- The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from
nearby factory pull into his village, he couldn't believe what
Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground,
workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then
turned around and drove right back through the gates of their
without a word.
This ritual has been going on almost every
day for nine months, Li and other
In China, a country
buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial
growth, such stories of
environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the
High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan
Province near the
Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It's a green
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
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
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
change. Hydropower dams are being constructed to replace
plants, but they are submerging whole ecosystems under
in China, the push to get into the solar energy market is having
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
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
Because of the
environmental hazard, polysilicon companies in the developed
the compound, putting it back into the production process. But
investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy
required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees
the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from
doing the same.
Like Luoyang Zhonggui, other solar plants in China have not
technology to prevent pollutants from getting into the environment
not brought those systems fully online, industry sources say.
recycling technology is of course being thought about, but currently
still not mature," said Shi Jun, a former photovoltaic technology
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
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
deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental
Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang
it is "impossible" to think that the company would dump large
waste into a residential area. "Some of the villagers did not tell
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
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
In 2005, when
residents of Li's village, Shiniu, heard that a new solar
would be building a factory nearby, they celebrated.
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
average wage in some areas has climbed to $200 a month, many of
residents make just $200 a year. They had high hopes their new
jump-start the local economy and help transform the area into
The Luoyang Zhonggui factory grew out of an effort by a national
institute to improve on a 50-year-old polysilicon refining
pioneered by Germany's Siemens. Concerned about intellectual
issues, Siemens has held off on selling its technology to the
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
Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong
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
When exposed to humid air, silicon tetrachloride transforms into
poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, which can make people who breathe
dizzy and can make their chests contract.
While it typically
takes companies two years to get a polysilicon factory up
properly, many Chinese companies are trying to do it in half
that time or
less, said Richard Winegarner, president of Sage Concepts, a
As a result, Ren of Hebei Industrial University said, some
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
Pro-EnerTech's Shi says other companies -- including Luoyang Zhonggui
just dumping wherever they can.
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
In sharp contrast to the gleaming white buildings in Zhonggui's
complex in Gaolong, the situation in the villages surrounding it is
About nine months ago, residents of Li's village, which begins
yards from the plant, noticed that their crops were wilting under a
of white powder. Sometimes, there was a hazy cloud up to three feet
near the dumping site; one person tending crops there fainted,
villagers said. Small rocks began to accumulate in kettles used for
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
The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the
to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a
field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.
worst part, said Li, 53, who lives with his son and granddaughter in
village, is that "they go outside the gates of their own compound to
"We didn't know how bad it was until the August harvest,
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
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."
Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.
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