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If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste?

Michael Shellenberger's picture

Michael Shellenberger is an award-winning author and environmental policy expert. For a quarter-century he has advocated solutions to lift all people out of poverty while lessening...

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Photo: JA Solar/Recycle Solar UK

The disposal of used solar panels is a huge and growing problem that is not being sufficiently addressed, writes Michael Shellenberger, founder of the pro-nuclear citizens movement Environmental Progress (EP). He argues that a fee should be imposed on solar panels which should go into a fund to pay for recyling and clean-up.

The last few years have seen growing concern over what happens to solar panels at the end of their life. Consider the following statements:

  • 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.”

Were these statements made by the right-wing Heritage Foundation? Koch-funded global warming deniers? The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal?

None of the above. Rather, the quotes come from 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.

With few environmental journalists willing to report on much of anything other than the good news about renewables, it’s been left to environmental scientists and solar industry leaders to raise the alarm.

Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel

“I’ve been working in solar since 1976 and that’s part of my guilt,” the veteran solar developer told Solar Power World last year. “I’ve been involved with millions of solar panels going into the field, and now they’re getting old.”

The trouble with solar waste

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated there was 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.

Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. For this reason, the whole solar panel is considered hazardous by many experts and governments, including the state of California, which is trying to prevent the flow of old solar panels to landfills.

“Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass,” notes San Jose State environmental studies professor Dustin Mulvaney. “However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.”

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 [is] not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil” and so “disposal is potentially a major issue.”

The fact that cadmium can be washed out of solar modules by rainwater is increasingly a concern for local environmentalists like the Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake in Virginia, where a 6,350 acre solar farm to partly power Microsoft data centers is being proposed.

“We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” Sean Fogarty of the group told me. “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.”

Today recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills

There is real-world precedent for this concern. A tornado in 2015 broke 200,000 solar modules at southern California solar farm Desert Sunlight.

“Any modules that were broken into small bits of glass had to be swept from the ground,” Mulvaney explained, “so lots of rocks and dirt got mixed in that would not work in recycling plants that are designed to take modules. These were the cadmium-based modules that failed [hazardous] waste tests, so were treated at a [hazardous] waste facility. But about 70 percent of the modules were actually sent to recycling, and the recycled metals are in new panels today.”

And when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, the nation’s second largest solar farm, responsible for 40 percent of the island’s solar energy, lost a majority of its panels.

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.”

But 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. “The absence of valuable metals/materials produces economic losses,” wrote a team of scientists in the International Journal of Photoenergy in their study of solar panel recycling last year, and “Results are coherent with the literature.”

Chinese and Japanese experts agree. “If a recycling plant carries out every step by the book,” a Chinese expert told The South China Morning Post, “their products can end up being more expensive than new raw materials.”

Toshiba Environmental Solutions told Nikkei Asian Review last year that,

Low demand for scrap and the high cost of employing workers to disassemble the aluminum frames and other components will make it difficult to create a profitable business unless recycling companies can charge several times more than the target set by [Japan’s environment ministry].

Can solar producers take responsibility?

In 2012, First Solar stopped putting a share of its revenues into a fund for long-term waste management. “Customers have the option to use our services when the panels get to the end of life stage,” a spokesperson told Solar Power World. “We’ll do the recycling, and they’ll pay the price at that time.”

Or they won’t. “Either it becomes economical or it gets mandated. ” said EPRI’s Cara Libby. “But I’ve heard that it will have to be mandated because it won’t ever be economical.”

Any mechanism that finances the cost of recycling PV modules with current revenues is not sustainable

Last July, Washington became the first U.S. state to require manufacturers selling solar panels to have a plan to recycle. But the legislature did not require manufacturers to pay a fee for disposal. “Washington-based solar panel manufacturer Itek Energy assisted with the bill’s writing,” noted Solar Power World.

The problem with putting the responsibility for recycling or long-term storage of solar panels on manufacturers, says the insurance actuary Milliman, is that it increases the risk of more financial failures like the kinds that afflicted the solar industry over the last decade.

[A]ny mechanism that finances the cost of recycling PV modules with current revenues is not sustainable. This method raises the possibility of bankruptcy down the road by shifting today’s greater burden of ‘caused’ costs into the future. When growth levels off then PV producers would face rapidly increasing recycling costs as a percentage of revenues.

Since 2016, Sungevity, Beamreach, Verengo Solar, SunEdison, Yingli Green Energy, Solar World, and Sunivahave gone bankrupt.

The result of such bankruptcies is that the cost of managing or recycling PV waste will be born by the public. “In the event of company bankruptcies, PV module producers would no longer contribute to the recycling cost of their products,” notes Milliman, “leaving governments to decide how to deal with cleanup.”

Governments of poor and developing nations are often not equipped to deal with an influx of toxic solar waste, experts say. German researchers at the Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics warned that poor and developing nations are at higher risk of suffering the consequences.

There are firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” but instead sell panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems

Dangers and hazards of toxins in photovoltaic modules appear particularly large in countries where there are no orderly waste management systems… Especially in less developed countries in the so-called global south, which are particularly predestined for the use of photovoltaics because of the high solar radiation, it seems highly problematic to use modules that contain pollutants.

The attitude of some solar recyclers in China appears to feed this concern. “A sales manager of a solar power recycling company,” the South China Morning Newsreported, “believes there could be a way to dispose of China’s solar junk, nonetheless.”

“We can sell them to Middle East… Our customers there make it very clear that they don’t want perfect or brand new panels. They just want them cheap… There, there is lots of land to install a large amount of panels to make up for their low performance. Everyone is happy with the result.”

In other words, there are firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” but instead sell panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems. In the past, communities living near electronic waste dumps in Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India have been primary e-waste destinations.

According to a 2015 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of electronic waste is illegally traded and dumped in poor nations. Writes UNEP:

[T]housands of tonnes of e-waste are falsely declared as second-hand goods and exported from developed to developing countries, including waste batteries falsely described as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors declared as metal scrap.

Unlike other forms of imported e-waste, used solar panels can enter nations legally before eventually entering e-waste streams. As the United Nation Environment Program notes, “loopholes in the current Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives allow the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries (70% of the collected WEEE ends up in unreported and largely unknown destinations).”

A path forward on solar panel waste

Perhaps the biggest problem with solar panel waste is that there is so much of it, and that’s not going to change any time soon, for a basic physical reason: sunlight is dilute and diffuse and thus require large collectors to capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. Those large surface areas, in turn, require an order of magnitude more in materials — whether today’s toxic combination of glass, heavy metals, and rare earth elements, or some new material in the future — than other energy sources.

Solar requires 15x more materials than nuclear.

All of that waste creates a large quantity of material to track, which in turn requires coordinated, overlapping, and different responses at the international, national, state, and local levels.

The first step is a fee on solar panel purchases to make sure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is internalized into the price of solar panels

The local level is where action to dispose of electronic and toxic waste takes place, often under state mandates. In the past, differing state laws have motivated the U.S. Congress to put in place national regulations. Industry often prefers to comply with a single national standard rather than multiple different state standards. And as the problem of the secondary market for solar shows, ultimately there needs to be some kind of international regulation.

The first step is a fee on solar panel purchases to make sure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is internalized into the price of solar panels and not externalized onto future taxpayers. An obvious solution would be to impose a new fee on solar panels that would go into a federal disposal and decommissioning fund.

The funds would then, in the future, be dispensed to state and local governments to pay for the removal and recycling or long-term storage of solar panel waste. The advantage of this fund over extended producer responsibility is that it would insure that solar panels are safely decommissioned, recycled, or stored over the long-term, even after solar manufacturers go bankrupt.

Given the decentralized nature of solar energy production, it is especially important that the whole society be involved in protecting itself from exposure to dangerous toxins

Second, the federal government should encourage citizen enforcement of laws to decommission, store, or recycle solar panels so that they do not end up in landfills. Currently, citizens have the right to file lawsuits against government agencies and corporations to force them to abide by various environmental laws, including ones that protect the public from toxic waste.

Solar should be no different. Given the decentralized nature of solar energy production, and lack of technical expertise at the local level, it is especially important that the whole society be involved in protecting itself from exposure to dangerous toxins.

“We have a County and State approval process over the next couple months,” Fogarty of Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake told me, “but it has become clear that local authorities have very little technical breadth to analyze the impacts of such a massive solar power plant.”

Lack of technical expertise can be a problem when solar developers like Sustainable Power Group, or sPower, incorrectly claim that the cadmium in its panels is not water soluble. That claim has been contradicted by the previously-mentioned Stuttgart research scientists who found cadmium from solar panels “can be almost completely washed out…over a period of several months…by rainwater.”

Third, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Partnership for Waste Management, as part of its International Environmental Partnership Center,  should more strictly monitor e-waste shipments and encourage nations importing used solar panels into secondary markets to impose a fee to cover the cost of recycling or long-term management. Such a recycling and waste management fund could help nations address their other e-waste problems while supporting the development of a new, high-tech industry in recycling solar panels.

None of this will come quickly, or easily, and some solar industry executives will resist internalizing the cost of safely storing, or recycling, solar panel waste, perhaps for understandable reasons. They will rightly note that there are other kinds of electronic waste in the world.

But it is notable that some new forms of electronic waste, namely smartphones like the iPhone, have in many cases replaced things like stereo systems, GPS devices, and alarm clocks and thus reduced their contribution to the e-waste stream. And no other electronics industry makes being “clean” its main selling point.

Wise solar industry leaders can learn from the past and be proactive in seeking stricter regulation in accordance with growing scientific evidence that solar panels pose a risk of toxic chemical contamination. “If waste issues are not preemptively addressed,” warns Mulvaney, “the industry risks repeating the disastrous environmental mistakes of the electronics industry.”

If the industry responds with foresight, Mulvaney notes, it could end up sparking clean innovation including “developing PV modules without hazardous inputs and recycled rare metals.” And that’s something everyone can get powered up about.

Editor’s Note

Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) is founder of the pro-nuclear citizens movement Environmental Progress (EP). 

Michael is (co-)author of many books and essays including The Death of Environmentalism, Break Through, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, Evolve, and Love Your Monsters. He writes for publications including Scientific American, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.

This article was first published on Forbes.com and is republished here with permission.

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Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 1, 2018

Amazing and implausible statement in the post:

Solar requires 15x more materials than nuclear.

(per MWh produced)
While new nuclear cost ~$150/MWh and new solar ~$40/MWh…

Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Jun 2, 2018

Re: “While new nuclear cost ~$150/MWh and new solar ~$40/MWh”…

But the above statement is misleading because solar power is not a 24/7 stand alone source. It must be backed up by hydro, Nat Gas, or nuke power. So what is the blended or weighted average price of solar + Nat Gas (or hydro or nuclear)? And how does that compare to Combined Cycle Gas alone or Nuclear alone? And does that blended price included extraordinary transmission and coordination costs?

More importantly, if solar is redundant power, or requires redundant power. what is the true cost of that redundancy combined with non-redundant power?

Example: I own a Toyota Prius Prime that has a gas motor and an electric motor. To claim that the electric motor costs less per mile is not relevant because it is the blended cost of the electric and gas engines that counts. A Prius Prime gets 54 mpg on gas engine and 133 mpg on electric engine and averages 33.7 kWH per 1 gallon of gasoline.

Without telling us the weighted average cost your statement is a non sequitur and misleading.

Wayne Lusvardi's picture
Wayne Lusvardi on Jun 2, 2018

Another example would be to compare a Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle and a Toyota Prius as to their 5-year average maintenance costs. The Leaf costs $3,405 and the Prius $3,399. So where is the cost savings for EV’s?

Link – https://www.torquenews.com/1083/myth-busted-electric-vehicles-cost-more-...

So what is the weighted average cost for solar power 8 hours per day plus the cost of, say, hydro power for 8 hours per day or Combined Cycle Nat Gas for 8 hours per day? And does that weighted average cost include the extraordinary cost of transmission lines and transformers and voltage boosting?

Without considering the blended cost what you are asserting is not even a half truth (more like a third truth).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 2, 2018

Breaking: Leaked memo lays out Trump administration proposal to aid at-risk coal, nuclear units

In a sign that the US Department of Energy’s plan to throw a lifeline to struggling coal and nuclear power plants could be advancing, the National Security Council was expected to discuss the matter at a Friday meeting, according to a report.

A 40-page draft memo, first obtained by Bloomberg, was circulated ahead of that meeting. It suggests the department would use emergency authority under the Federal Power Act and Defense Production Act to direct grid operators to buy power or capacity from at-risk facilities.

TRUMP ORDERS PERRY TO STOP FUTURE COAL, NUCLEAR CLOSURES

A Friday statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders also expressed President Donald Trump’s belief that “keeping America’s energy grid and infrastructure strong and secure protects our national security, public safety and economy from intentional attacks and natural disasters.”

From the memo:

Nuclear energy is a critical strategic and energy security asset for the United States, and continued U.S. leadership in the global nuclear energy market has important nonproliferation and safety ramifications. Nuclear generation units have the kinds of “guns, guards, and gates” and other physical and cyber-hardening measures that would be needed in the event of a major attack. As NERC has stated, “nuclear retirements require additional attention from system planners and policy makers related to … the potential for reduced resilience. This is because of the unique ability of
nuclear resources to operate despite a variety of potential fuel supply disruptions.”97
Without a strong domestic nuclear power industry, the U.S. will not only lose these
energy security and grid resilience benefits, but will also lose its technical expertise, supply chain, and ability to influence international policy. It is in the Nation’s strategic interest to preserve these assets in order to maintain and enhance American leadership and influence in the global nuclear market, including in the export of commercial nuclear technologies and systems. The entire U.S. nuclear enterprise—weapons, naval propulsion, non-proliferation, enrichment, and section 123 negotiations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other countries—depends on a robust civilian
nuclear industry. To maintain U.S. nuclear leadership and secure supply chains for our nuclear enterprise, we must preserve our civil nuclear capacity and expertise.

Happy Saturday, Michael.

https://www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/washington/leaked-memo...

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 2, 2018

Are there funds to handle more toxic TV sets, VCR’s, PC’s, etc.?
If that toxic waste is (not)regulated, should solar panels then not follow those regulations?
Why make an exception?
That creates a lot of new thresholds for the deployment of solar and US created already a lot with the installation of high import tariffs in past 5years, making US electricity more expensive than needed.

What about toxic cars in USA?

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 2, 2018

During the past few years, the media have often published about the decreasing prices of wind and solar. The lay public who reads these stories are intentionally left with the impression the more wind and solar, the lower electricity prices will become. The real world facts show it actually is the opposite. See URL
http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/wind-and-solar-hype-versus-r...

Plant Closures and Economics and Politics

Since 2010, California closed one nuclear plant (2,140 MW) and Germany closed 5 nuclear plants and 4 other reactors at currently operating plants (10,980 MW in total). Those closures were due to political pressures by RE aficionados, who also pressure to close “dirty” coal plants.

Wind and solar owners are allowed to feed their heavily subsidized electricity into the grid regardless of whether it is needed or not, and, usually, they get paid at above wholesale feed-in tariff rates, or at above wholesale power purchase agreement, PPA, rates; a “no lose” deal for those owners, paid for by everyone else (subsidies, cost shifting, higher prices for goods and services).

However, nuclear and coal plant owners usually get paid at wholesale prices, which have been decreasing due to the combination of 1) increased, heavily subsidized wind and solar, and 2) increased generation with low cost gas.

Remember, variable and intermittent wind and solar electricity cannot exist on any electric grid without the traditional, dispatchable, flexible, generators, primarily gas turbine plants, performing the peaking, filling-in and balancing. So it is only natural the owners of wind and solar plants and the owners of gas plants having political coalitions to promote their own agendas, which include the closures of coal and nuclear plants.

However, the US national security sector relies on the US electrical sector for 99% of its electricity. It is of vital importance for the US to have a large capacity of power plants, with large, onsite fuel storage, such as coal and nuclear plants, to ensure electricity service at a reliability of 99.97% or better, 24/7/365. Having just wind and solar, plus gas plants would greatly diminish the ensuring of that reliability.

Increasing Electricity Prices With Increased Wind and Solar

During the 2009 and 2017 period:

– The price of solar panels per watt decreased by 75%
– The price of wind turbines per watt decreased by 50%

However, the prices of electricity in places that deployed significant wind and solar increased dramatically. See figure 7 in euanmearns URL, which shows Denmark and Germany with much higher household electric prices than the rest of the EU.

Up 51% in Germany during its expansion of solar and wind energy from 2006 to 2016;
Up 24% in California during its solar energy build-out from 2011 to 2017; see Appendix.
Up over 100% in Denmark since 1995 when it began deploying renewables (mostly wind) in earnest.

https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy17osti/68925.pdf
https://about.bnef.com/blog/wind-turbine-prices-u-s-plummet-faster-globa...
http://euanmearns.com/an-update-on-the-energiewende/

http://environmentalprogress.org/germany/
http://www.pfbach.dk/firma_pfb/pfb_skyrocketing_electricity_cost_2014.pdf
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_Denmark#/media/File:Wind_in_...,

NOTE: If 100% RE aficionados were correct, why do countries in the EU, with high levels of RE, such as Germany and Denmark also have high household electric rates? The commercial/industrial rates are kept low and much less burdened with taxes, fees and surcharges, for competitive reasons. Why would that be different in New England? See graph of household electric rates versus the sum of installed wind and solar in the euanmearns URL.

http://euanmearns.com/an-update-on-the-energiewende/
http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/wind-and-solar-hype-versus-r...

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jun 4, 2018

MAybe the building below the rooftop solar system was included in the calculation. This would also explain the piles of cement in the calculation. Neitzer rooftop nor utility scale solar use cement or concrete today. But for the building below the rooftop solar system the cement / concrete is used.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 5, 2018

Nuclear stop sometimes within a second. So a 1GW NPP needs 1GW expensive spinning reserve
Solar & wind production is rather accurately predicted with the weather days ahead, and doesn’t stop suddenly as it are thousands of units distributed over the country. So no need for expensive spinning reserve.

The variable production of solar + wind is solved with batteries for short periods (up to 2 days or so), and Power-to-Gas(H²) with cheap storage in deep earth cavities for long seasonal winter dips.*)
In many situations with additional help from hydro, biogas/-fuel/-mass, geothermal, pumped storage, etc. Though those are not necessary.

The total costs of suitable production units delivering 100% renewable are in near all situations only slightly more expensive. Shown by a.o. the French simulation studies by govt institute ADEME who concluded that 80% renewable is cheapest and that 100% renewable cost only 5% more in 2050. So France is now expanding renewable and shrinking nuclear.
_______
*) Germany stores already 200TWh of NG in such deep earth cavities (their grid is 600TWh). NL stores a winter supply of conditioned natural gas in 600meter deep caverns in order to save costs on gas conditioning plants.
Near all countries have substantial deep caverns available.

Recent auctions showed that even in insolation poor Germany solar is now becoming cheaper than onshore wind (offshore wind is still cheapest).
The auctions delivered prices between 3.8 and 4.6cnt/KWh (av. 4.3cnt) for solar and between 3.8 and 5.2cnt/KWh (av. 4.6cnt) for wind.

– Base load power plants such as Nuclear, are unsuitable to operate as a reserve in an high solar & wind environments.

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