Nowadays, the concern for the environment has been one of the biggest issues talked about in societies worldwide. There’s climate change, extreme consumerism, plastic waste, ocean pollution, food shortages, air pollution, loss of endangered species… And, the list goes on. It’s clear that we are heading towards several serious problems as a planet.
The numerous environmental issues have successfully invited a lot of people to initiate a better humankind lifestyle for our Mother Earth. One of the initiatives that people seem to like the idea of is using the solar panel as the source of home electricity. With solar, you will recoup your upfront capital costs, and eventually, make more money in energy savings. You’ll be generating your own energy, lowering your impact on the energy grid, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions all the while.
Sounds too good to be true?
There’s been a growing concern over what happens to the solar panel once they’ve reached the end of their lives. According to a senior Chinese solar official, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. solar industry, and research scientists with the German Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics, some of them are as follows.
- The problem of solar panel disposal will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment because it is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.
- The reality is that there is a problem now, and it’s only going to get larger, expanding as rapidly as the PV industry expanded 10 years ago.
- Contrary to previous assumptions, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater.
The Trouble With Solar Waste
Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. According to Dustin Mulvaney, environmental studies professor from San Jose State, approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass. However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated there were about 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste in the world at the end of that year. IRENA projected that this amount could reach 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
Researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) undertook a study for U.S. solar-owning utilities to plan for end-of-life and concluded that solar panel disposal in regular landfills not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil. Therefore, disposal is potentially a major issue.
Many experts urge mandatory recycling. The main finding promoted by IRENA's in its 2016 report was that if fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material from used solar panels could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050. However, IRENA’s study did not compare the value of recovered material to the cost of new materials and admitted that recent studies agree that PV material availability is not a major concern in the near term, but critical materials might impose limitations in the long term.
They might, but today recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills. Chinese and Japanese experts agree that if a recycling plant carries out every step by the book, their products can end up being more expensive than new raw materials.