Some solar panels use silicon crystals that required careful purification and enormous quantities of energy. Some types use cadmium, which is highly toxic. Several types are noted by Wikipedia.

If we consider energy to manufacture, material toxicity, ability to be recycled, and average useful life, does any type of photovoltaic cell stand out about the others? Has this analysis been done by anyone?

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    I've worked on machines for laser scribing CdTe solar panels and reading the MSDS was very scary, especially since our lasers were blasting it from the surface of the glass! As it is, I can't believe anyone would have thought the use of CdTe in solar panels would be sustainable, given the rarity of tellurium .
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 11:29
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    You are going to have to pin down your criteria for "Most environmentally friendly" * Cost to make. (Expense ultimatly ties back to other economic activity which all has an impact) * Environmental Impact to make. * EI to dispose of * Service life (Suppose they were cheap, non-toxic, but lasted only a year?) * EI on land. (Suppose they were cheap, non-toxic, but were only 5% efficient -- 3 times as much land needed.) Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 12:39
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    @MarkBooth Look on the bright side of rare elements: their high cost encourages recycling and the development of tech that doesn't use them. Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 20:38
  • Not exactly an answer to your question, but the Solar Scorecard compares solar cell manufacturers and includes an analysis of "module toxicity and materials."
    – LShaver
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 16:11

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This isn't a complete answer but I would avoid buying PV panels built in countries with poor environmental regulations. That would be a good place to start. For example China. Then if possible avoid companies that mine the materials they're built from in places like China or Africa. Again, the regulations allow much more pollution than places like Europe and North America.

Finally I'd get a panel with a long life expectancy, is efficient at producing energy and is more likely to be repairable or recyclable when it does quit.

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