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What We Need To Understand About Solar Panel Waste

Ryan Ayers's picture
Researcher , Consultant

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of Fortune 500 companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Sep 18, 2020

Generally when we hear about solar panels, we think of it as a sustainable way to save energy, but, as is the case with any sort of material use, there is still some waste involved, and when it comes to solar panels reaching the end of their lives, the waste is becoming a growing issue that needs to be addressed.

Generally, solar panels operate to their full extent for about 25 years, which is a hefty amount of time, but as the popularity and intrigue of “going off the grid” continues to rise, so do the concerns surrounding solar panel waste removal. Here are the key issues the planet is facing with regards to solar panel waste.

The Good

The production of solar energy, and the processes of properly disposing of the panels does not emit carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas associated with global warming. This gas makes up more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, so any energy alternative that is CO2 free, is still a very good alternative.

Transporting solar panels to and from their given destinations, however, can result in greenhouse gas emissions, so if you plan on going solar and want to completely avoid greenhouse emissions, be sure your contractors are traveling without fossil fuel use.

The panels that will eventually need to be disposed of do not have a large amount of toxic material, as most of them are primarily glass and silicon, which can be recycled. This is ultimately a good thing, however the small amounts of copper, silver, and aluminum can cause issues when continuously being disposed of.

The Bad

Solar panel installation increased by 12 percent, globally, from 2018 to 2019, and is expected to grow at a similar rate in the next few years. This is, ultimately a good thing, but sets up the industry to experience some of the same downfalls related to the fossil fuel industry, primarily in failures to properly prepare. Fossil fuels aren’t the Devil, but our unabashed use of them over the last century, with no real plans to conserve, have left them dwindling.

With the solar panel industry growing, there needs to be planning for conservation of the materials as much as there is planning for their installation, and currently that planning is not in place. Experts predict that more than 8 million tons of solar panel waste will be created by the end of the 2020, and by 2025, some experts predict this number to be around 80 million, as the industry boomed right around the turn of the century, and that 25 year clock is ticking.

As mentioned in the previous section, some experts believe that the waste materials found in these panels can seep into the ground if regularly disposed of at a normal landfill. Unfortunately, the impurities that affect the glass over time make that glass non-recyclable, so breaking up the panels is not yet an option.

How to Fix It

Unfortunately, the recycling problem regarding the panels has not been heavily addressed as of the time of this publication. With that, the best thing we can do as individuals is to raise awareness about the issue. A silver lining to the COVID-19 situation is that there are a lot of people sitting at home aimlessly perusing the internet, and social media is a great tool for social good. There is, of course, always a line to toe when speaking negatively about an otherwise progressive means of energy production, so be sure to outline all of the good that certainly outweighs the bad before bringing up the issues regarding recycling practices!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 18, 2020

so be sure to outline all of the good that certainly outweighs the bad before bringing up the issues regarding recycling practices!

Given the timeframe on which we're looking to decarbonize to prevent climate change, I've heard the position taken that it's prudent to install the panels now and then spent the coming years while they're optional to plan the best and most environmental approach to disposal while running through that useful life. Is it optimal? No, of course we'd prefer to have the optimal installation-to-disposal lifecycle planned out right away, but given the need to decarbonize power generation ASAP installing now and working rapidly to determine end-of-life protocols in the meantime is potentially a next best approach. What are your thoughts on that, Ryan? 

Ryan Ayers's picture
Thank Ryan for the Post!
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