First Solar may have a fix for bankrupt Abound Solar’s cadmium problem

A box of Abound Solar modules when the company was still producing themLast month the Denver Post revealed that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered Abound Solar to clean up what it now considers hazardous waste at its Colorado facilities across the front range. The chief hazardous material in Abound’s solar modules is cadmium, a probable human carcinogen, that’s used in CdTe modules, like Abound’s and First Solar’s. First Solar has expressed interest in seeing if it can recycle the cadmium in Abound’s defunct modules*—but despite some news sources making it appear that First Solar has already agreed to take care of the material nothing’s been signed yet.

“What we've said is that we've reached out to Abound to see if it's feasible for us to recycle their modules,” said First Solar spokesperson Alan Bernhiemer. “It's premature to speculate on anything further,” he added. 

At issue are 2,500 pallets of defective panels, 30 55-gallon drums of fluids with cadmium contamination and 2,500 gallons of cadmium-contaminated water, according to the Denver Post. Clean-up costs for the materials were estimated at $2.2 million, said Adam Singer, an attorney with Cooch and Taylor, who is serving as Abound’s trustee through its bankruptcy.

While cadmium in the wild is a potential carcinogen, it’s used in nickel cadmium batteries and other industrial purposes, so it’s use in PV modules is hardly rare, and it’s actually considered the safest use of the material by the European Commission Institute for Environment and Sustainability since the amount of cadmium used is minimal and it’s locked into a PV module throughout the module’s service life of 25 years or more. A nickel cadmium battery’s life may span a few years and many users are likely to dispose of such batteries in their household trash, causing a much more serious issue. And a fossil fuel power plant is likely to spew more cadmium into the air over its lifetime than the amount of cadmium in PV modules.

First Solar also takes additional steps to minimize the potential that any of the cadmium used in its modules can pollute anything. As such the company has a rigorous recycling program. At a module’s end of life, the company can recycle 95 percent of the semiconducting materials in its modules. If it is able to recycle Abound’s waste it could show the efficiency of the process.

If Abound can find a purchaser for the waste, Joe Schieffelin, manager of the state department's solid- and hazardous-waste program told the Denver Post that if Abound finds a buyer for the waste the department wouldn’t consider it a hazardous material. 

*Please note: A previous version of this story mentioned that First Solar had inquired about recycling cadmium in the modules and wastewater. First solar has only inquired about recycling the modules.