The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is now supporting the expansion of community solar. This move was a long time coming considering that, decades ago, solar power rode in, under the guise of a knight in ‘zero-emission’ armor.
While technological improvements may result in solar panels lasting for longer, they don’t last forever. As photovoltaic solar panels age, their ability to generate electricity slowly but surely decreases and can last from between 20-35 years. And herein lies the problem.
When solar panels were first introduced, the technology was young. The cost of a panel producing 1 watt was over $75 to manufacture. Today, it costs less than $1. Growth of the photovoltaic capacity is expected to rise to about 4,500 gigawatts in 2050. One gigawatt can power about 750,000 homes, and to produce one gigawatt it takes over 3 million solar panels.
In the U.S. solar power accounted for 146 billion kilowatt-hours of all electricity generation in 2022. While our nation was quick to adopt solar panels as an eco-friendly energy source, there was less consideration given to the safe disposal of solar panels at the end of their life cycle. Given the long-life cycle of solar panels, it’s clear the pioneers of this technology (and those who profited from mass producing it) are leaving the safe disposal of solar panels as a problem for the next generation.
Currently, solar panels end up in landfills posing new environmental challenges. Additionally, damaged solar panels in landfills could potentially leak heavy metals and chemicals to the soil, groundwater, and air – chemicals such as cadmium and lead. And it is long-term exposure to cadmium (depending on the route of exposure) that can cause cancer and organ system toxicity in the skeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory system, and more.
However, because of the several-decade-long lag when solar panels become trash, only a fraction of the solar panels are in landfills. Due to this relatively low volume of solar panel waste, recycling processes for solar panels are not yet economically feasible.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2030, the cumulative solar panel waste will be between 1.7-8 million tons, but this is expected to rise to 60-78 million tons of cumulative waste by 2050. In fact, researchers have estimated that by 2016, solar panels had already spread about 11,000 tons of lead and about 800 tons of cadmium. If the status quo continues, solar panel waste and the consequences of improperly disposing of them will cause an environmental disaster by the mid-to-late 21st century.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Preventable disasters arise from a perfect storm of ignorance, unwillingness to act, and shortsightedness – and we have a perfect confluence of opportunities to be better. Solar panels have the potential to be a truly eco-friendly energy source if clean energy stakeholders are more thoughtful in their approach to solar panel waste disposal.
Because of the long-life cycle of solar panels, we have time to advocate for stronger producer responsibility laws and require companies that produce solar panels to also research safe recycling and disposal methods.
For example, Niagara County became the nation’s first local government to pass producer responsibility law requiring producers of solar panels sold in the county to finance and manage their safe reuse and recycling when decommissioned. Lawmakers in states and the federal government must follow suit of Niagara county and Washington State, to pass and enforce stronger laws that require the safe reuse, recycling, and disposal of solar panel waste.
Raw material recovery should also be prioritized by clean energy leaders. It is estimated that raw material recovery alone from used solar panels could be a $15 billion industry by 2050. This would create jobs and uplift the economy. It would also prevent an environmental disaster and public health disaster, saving billions of dollars in healthcare and disaster management costs.
Creating systems to properly manage solar waste disposal will send the future developers of ‘green sustainable energy sources’ a powerful message, “you can’t destroy the planet while trying to save it.”