'Solar trash tsunami': How solar power is driving a looming environmental crisis

We all know there is a way forward and out of the climate change mess we are getting into, but we have to understand that there is no silver bullet. This article from the National Post quite succinctly points out that we have a long way to go before we can climb out of the abyss.

Remember when flat screens yielded mountains of trashed CRT monitors? This could be worse.

Now-U.S. president Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, New Hampshire in June, 2019. PHOTO BY REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

The meteoric rise of solar power is set to spark a “tsunami” of unrecyclable trash as consumers trade out their obsolete solar panels for better ones, according to new research out of the University of Calgary.

“Put simply, we can expect a lot more solar panel waste within the next decade than we are prepared for,” wrote a team led by Calgary-based supply chain researcher Serasu Duran in a pre-publication paper.

The study — which attempted to estimated the raw tonnage of solar panels set to hit landfills in coming years — warned that if the solar industry doesn’t get a handle on its trash problem, “we may soon face the dark side of renewable energy.”

While hydroelectricity remains by far Canada’s largest source of renewable energy, solar capacity has skyrocketed in recent years. Driven in large part by government incentives, at the end of 2019 Canada had 3,310 MW of solar panels as compared to just 221 MW in 2010 — an increase of 1,500 per cent. If the sun is shining, all those panels technically have a capacity matching that of Ontario’s Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.

However, solar panels have a short lifespan and are particularly ill-suited for recycling. They contain very few materials worth recovering, and as bulky sheets of glass, they’re expensive to transport to a recycling facility.

In this 2019 photo, Dennis German of German Solar talks about the state of solar energy at the West Five parking garage in London, Ont., where cars are shielded from the sun by solar panels .PHOTO BY MIKE HENSEN/THE LONDON FREE PRESS/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

“To the best of our knowledge, there is no consensus regarding an effective recycling technology for 90+ per cent glass panels. Nor there are any widespread established regulations,” Duran told the National Post. “Anyone can pretty much take a tv to a municipal recycling center, not so much with a rooftop solar panel.”

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) was sounding the alarm on solar waste as early as 2016, warning that by 2050 the world would need to figure out a way to deal with up to 78 million tonnes of outdated solar infrastructure. For context, New York City — one of the most trash-producing cities on the entire planet — produces only 14 million tonnes of waste each year.

Nevertheless, Duran’s team pegs the IREA number as a vast underestimate because it assumes that most of the world’s existing solar panels will remain bolted to roofs for at least 30 years.

The more likely scenario, they estimate, is that millions of people can be expected to rip out their solar panels early in order to install replacements that are cheaper and more efficient. In that case, by 2030 the volume of solar waste could be up to 50 times higher than anticipated by IREA.

By 2035, the solar industry could be generating 2.5 tonnes of waste for every tonne of solar panel it installs — overwhelming municipalities and homeowners with disposal costs. “The economics of solar — so bright-seeming from the vantage point of 2021 — would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash,” she and her co-authors wrote in a recent review of their research for the Harvard Business Review.

And Duran’s team only studied the solar panels bolted to residential homes. Add in industrial solar farms and the replacement costs become “much, much larger.”

The study compared the coming global tide of solar trash to the ongoing e-waste crisis. The sudden rise of quick-to-obsolescence computers, televisions and mobile phones has spawned literal mountains of difficult-to-recycle trash loaded with harmful chemicals, such as lead and cadmium. In the worst instances, shipping containers full of black market e-waste find their way to unregulated dumps in the developing world.

Scrapped electronic components sit in a crate at the Attero Recycling Pvt facility in the Raipur industrial area of Bhagwanpur in Roorkee, Uttarkhand, India, on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Roughly 90 percent of electronic waste recycling in India is handled by the so-called unorganized sector, which is highly inefficient, puts workers’ health and safety at risk, and is highly polluting.PHOTO BY DHIRAJ SINGH/BLOOMBERG

“History appears to repeat itself with renewable energy installations, and very likely much sooner than we thought,” reads the paper.

With each year bringing cheaper and more efficient solar technology, solar panels are plagued by many of the same lifespan issues as consumer electronics. In the same way that computers get progressively faster each year, solar panels get progressively better at generating electricity — roughly 0.5 per cent more efficient each year.

Rapid technological advancements also make it “nearly impossible to imagine a strong market for used solar panels,” reads Duran’s study.

A customer inspects a solar panel that is linked to a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall at a home in Monkton, Vermont, U.S., on Monday, May 2, 2016. A year after Elon Musk unveiled the Powerwall at Tesla Motors Inc.’s design studio near Los Angeles, the first wave of residential installations has started in the U.S. The 6.4-kilowatt-hour unit stores electricity from home solar systems and provides backup in the case of a conventional outage.PHOTO BY IAN THOMAS JANSEN-LONNQUIST/BLOOMBERG

Duran’s team has noted that none of this is a reason to abandon solar technology, writing in Harvard Business Review that a trash crisis is still a relatively small problem compared to leaving a “damaged if not dying planet to future generations” as a result of unchecked fossil fuel use. The “tsunami” is also expected to stabilize once the rapid advances in solar technology slow down and it becomes less attractive to swap out still-functioning rooftop panels for a more modern alternative. “This will likely be a big but temporary problem,” said Duran.

Nevertheless, the paper urges the green technology industry to “seriously anticipate this tsunami of solar panel waste” and consider new designs and end-of-life-cycle processing that could prevent the coming mountains of obsolete solar panels from simply being sunk into landfills.

The researchers also note that solar isn’t the only aspect of the green economy with a looming and unaddressed waste problem, pointing to a coming tide of obsolete electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines, both of which similarly have no easy conduit to recycling.

22 views0 comments