Solar Panels Are Starting to Die. What Will We Do With The Megatons Of Toxic Trash?

Most people seem to believe that wind and solar panels produce no waste and have no negative environmental impacts. Unfortunately, these people are wrong.

In reality, everything that humans do has an environmental impact, whether it be mining, using a coal-fired power plant, or even tourism. When it comes to energy and environmental policy, the real question to ask is not “will there be an impact?” but rather, “can the impacts be minimized?” and “do the benefits outweigh the costs?”

Because everything has an effect on the environment, it is important that everyone understands the impacts of all energy sources so we can make the best possible energy decisions. We are constantly making trade-offs in our lives whether we recognize it or not.

A recent article in Grist warns of a looming onslaught of solar waste as solar panels in the United States begin to reach the end of their 25 year lifetimes. The article begins:

“Solar panels are an increasingly important source of renewable power that will play an essential role in fighting climate change. They are also complex pieces of technology that become big, bulky sheets of electronic waste at the end of their lives — and right now, most of the world doesn’t have a plan for dealing with that.”

Unlike other forms of electricity generation, like nuclear plants or coal plants, there doesn’t seem to be any foresight on how to deal with the waste that will be generated when solar panels and wind turbines reach the end of their short lifetimes. Remember, nuclear plants can run for 80 years, as can coal plants with proper maintenance and upkeep, but even the best wind turbines and solar panels will last for just 25 years, creating staggering amounts of waste products.

The article continues:

But we’ll need to develop one soon, because the solar e-waste glut is coming. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually.

This is an enormous amount of waste. For context, the amount of nuclear waste created from generating electricity in the United States for the last five decades is about 90,000 metric tons. During this time, nuclear power has provided nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

This means that solar panels are expected to generate 866 times more waste in the next 30 years than nuclear power has generated in the last 50. And unlike nuclear waste, which is safely stored on site, nobody knows what will happen to these solar panels at the end of their useful lifetime because solar panels are not easily recycled. According to Grist:

“Standard electronics recycling methods don’t cut it for solar panels. Recovering the most valuable materials from one, including silver and silicon, requires bespoke recycling solutions. And if we fail to develop those solutions along with policies that support their widespread adoption, we already know what will happen.

“If we don’t mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfill,” said Arizona State University solar researcher Meng Tao, who recently authored a review paper on recycling silicon solar panels, which comprise 95 percent of the solar market.

“Solar panels are composed of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight to electricity. When these panels enter landfills, valuable resources go to waste. And because solar panels contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, landfilling also creates new environmental hazards.”

Not only are solar panels not required to be recycled, their disposal can lead to potential environmental problems. If broken panels in landfills can leach lead or other heavy metals, it stands to reason that other broken panels at solar arrays could potentially result in similar contamination. However, we won’t know if that happens because solar panels are not held to the same environmental standards as other projects.

Solar panels require no baseline water testing or soil sampling to measure metal levels in the soil before the panels are installed. These baseline tests will give us a “before” photo of the environment, and allow us to determine if solar panels have damaged the environment during their useful lifetimes.

Solar panels are required to be recycled in the European Union, but with the exception of Washington state, the U.S. has no solar recycling mandates whatsoever. Most of the time, solar panels go to landfills or are exported overseas for reuse in developing countries with weak environmental protections, according to Grist.

One reason so few solar panels are recycled is because it isn’t cost effective. According to Grist:

“Tao and his colleagues estimate that a recycler taking apart a standard, 60-cell silicon panel can get about $3 for the recovered aluminum, copper, and glass. Vanderhoof, meanwhile, says that the cost of recycling that panel in the U.S. is anywhere between $12 and $25 — after transportation costs, which “oftentimes equal the cost to recycle.” At the same time, in states that allow it, it typically costs less than a dollar to dump a solar panel in a solid waste landfill.”

“We believe the big blind spot in the U.S. for recycling is that the cost far exceeds the revenue,” Meng said. “It’s on the order of a 10-to-1 ratio.”

There’s nothing wrong with putting solar panels in a properly designed landfill facility. Landfills are equipped with modern technology to protect groundwater and the environment, and putting the solar panels in one of these designated waste facilities is a much better alternative to them sitting abandoned in farm fields after they have reached the end of their useful lifetimes. However, it is important to remind those who think solar is clean and green that solar panels also have environmental downsides.

Unfortunately, most people still don’t understand that wind and solar require enormous amounts of metal, and that much of this metal is mined in Third-World countries that have few protections for workers or the environment. Then, after the solar panel is no longer useful to Americans, they are shipped to developing countries for reuse or disposal. The potential contamination then becomes their problem, not ours.

If this is the “circular economy” that environmentalists talk about, then the circle is simply exploiting the environment in poor countries to get the metals needed to make solar panels, and foisting the panels back on the developing world after we don’t want them anymore.

And these people have the gall to talk about “environmental justice.”