One of the most efficient energy solutions to lower emission of greenhouse gases, solar energy may cause side effects: it’s not clear what to do with the disposal of used panels

Adopting photovoltaic solar energy as a far-reaching energy matrix is recommended by nearly all environmentalists and scientists who tackle climate change risks to the planet. However, its production chain-develops side effects: as the years go by and as the technology becomes more popular, disposing of solar panels may become a large-scale problem.

The benefits of solar energy are known. It is a process that generates renewable and clean energy, emitting extremely low amounts of greenhouse gases. California, in the United States, has adopted a policy requiring houses to be supplied with solar power from 2020; the expectation is to reduce the generation of greenhouse gases by 53% – equivalent to 700 thousand tons or 115 thousand fewer fossil fuel-driven cars on the streets.

In Japan, where implementation of broad photovoltaic module fields has already started, there have been problems. In the end of 2016, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment warned that the country would produce 800 thousand tons of solar waste by 2040. It’s not a localized problem; according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2050, the amount of solar panel waste around the world will rise from current 250 thousand tons to 78 million tons.

The agency further stated that, by 2050, the productive capacity of wasted modules will reach 4,500 GW, the equivalent of about 2 billion new panels. If all that material isn’t recovered or recycled, the economic damage will reach US$ 15 billion. “That’s an amazing amount of growth. It’s going to be a major problem,” said Mary Hutzler, researcher at the Institute for Energy Research, for The Verge website.

A history of trouble

Photovoltaic solar energy panels are classified under the same category of electronic waste – such as mobile phones, TV sets, computers and the like. For almost a decade, China has received about 70% of all world’s electronic waste. In 2018, a law promises to toughen rules to accommodate this type of waste.

At the moment, the greatest part of production of such materials is tossed away in poor South Asian countries, which isn’t a sustainable solution for the planet. In addition to massive disposal of scarce material on the planet, damaged photovoltaic solar energy modules release toxic materials that may contaminate the region, in special water and ground, compromising the entire ecosystem.

A strategy that initially worked was transfering lesser efficient panels to less developed economies – a form of reusing the equipment with good conditions of use. However, The Verge also cites that with the increasing production of Chinese panels, cheaper and lower in quality, the lifespan of products drops drastically on average. Traditional modules last at least 25 years, while “generic” models do not go beyond the 5-year mark.

Large-scale recycling of theses panels is not considered a simple solution either. One reason is economic: recycling isn’t beneficial from a financial perspective. Although these residues contain valuable materials, such as silver, gold and copper, the volume isn’t enough to make it up for high costs regarding the mechanical process for decomposition of their parts. The Electric Power Research Institute also recommends that these panels are kept safely, and expects that technology advances will improve their recycling process.

“If the volume goes up, maybe it will be worthy to recycling companies,” said Justin Baca, Vice President of Markets & Research that promotes a national recycling program in the United States, to the Verge. The solution, experts claim, is to implement public actions, such as the measures taken by the American state of Washington, that now requires solar panel manufacturers to provide a recycling plan for their products, and by the European Union, that launched their first solar panel recycling plant.


Content published in November 27, 2018

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