The proliferation of renewable energy sources, especially solar power, has increased significantly over the past years, but the issue of how to tackle solar waste is becoming a cause of concern both inside and outside America.
The United States currently has an estimated 149.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity installed nationwide. In the first quarter of 2023, the country installed 6.1 GW of solar capacity, which is its “best first quarter in history,” according to a June 8 press release by research firm Wood Mackenzie. Over the next five years, Wood Mackenzie expects America’s total installed solar capacity to hit 378 GW by 2028.
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China is the biggest solar manufacturer in the world and a key supplier of panels to the United States. But trading with China comes with human costs like slave labor.
Last year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) withheld 1,642 electronic shipments valued at $841 million, including solar panels, due to the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act that sought to counter the use of forced labor when sourcing from China. In March, the CBP released 552 pieces of equipment worth $345 million.
The stalled import of solar panels from China caused delays in solar project development programs. But with the release of part of the withheld shipments, the Chinese solar panels will now make their way into American projects.
Besides the human rights issue in the manufacturing process, the solar industry has another hurdle that is yet to be resolved and which is soon touted to be a global ecological nightmare.
Most solar panels have a lifespan of around 25 to 30 years. As these panels stop working or are retired, they pose a significant challenge as countries have to make sound arrangements to deal with the massive amounts of solar panel waste.
Burgeoning Solar Waste
Based on numbers from Yale School of the Environment, solar panels due to retire by 2030 in the United States would cover around 3,000 American football fields.
In a May 13 interview with CNBC, Suvi Sharma, the CEO of Texas-based Solarcycle, stated that solar energy is “becoming the dominant form of power generation” while citing an EIA report which said that 54 percent of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity in the United States this year will come from solar.
However, nothing has been done to make the solar industry “circular,” Sharma said, referring to recycling. At present, there are over 500 million solar panels in America, with tens of millions expected to be added in the coming years.
A 2019 study published in Renewable Energy estimated that the country will see roughly 9.8 million metric tons of solar panel waste between 2030 and 2060.
In China, solar panel waste has become a major issue. Over the past years, China scrambled to boost the production of solar panels without properly maintaining technology standards. As a result, many of these panels are becoming unusable before the end of their expected lifetime.
The scrapping rate of solar panels in China is estimated to have reached around 30 percent per year, Fang Qi, an investment consultant living in the United Kingdom, told The Epoch Times on April 4.
In March, Liu Limin, deputy secretary of the PV specialized committee of China ECOPV Alliance, predicted at a forum that China’s solar module waste will hit 18GW by 2030 and 253GW or 20 million tons by 2040.
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Recycling Solar Waste
Solar panel waste presents a substantial pollution problem. The panels consist of numerous toxic chemicals like cadmium telluride, lead, hexafluoroethane, and more. A chemical created as a byproduct of solar panel manufacturing is silicon tetrachloride which can lead to burns on the skin.
Putting solar panel waste in landfills presents a long-term risk to the environment as the toxic minerals and metals can end up seeping into the ground.
However, this is what is being done right now. At present, around 90 percent of defective or end-of-life solar panels are sent into landfills. This is because the costs of recycling solar panels are far higher compared to just dumping them.
According to Sharma, this gap will be “closing over the next five to 10 years significantly” due to a “combination of recycling becoming more cost-effective and landfilling costs only increasing.”
California is the biggest residential solar market in the United States, and as of mid-2022, the state had only one recycling plant that accepted solar panels.
U.S.-based solar panel manufacturer First Solar believes recycling will become profitable. “I’m very confident we will get the costs of recycling below landfill,” the company’s chief quality and reliability officer Patrick Buehler said in an interview with WSJ last year.
According to First Solar, it can recover nearly 95 percent of a solar panel’s materials by weight. The recovered materials can then be used to make semiconductors for brand-new panels.
Another aspect of the distribution network is that when waste management costs are added, the price of individual solar panels will also move up.
Practical and efficient energy policies need to be adopted by lawmakers. There are many drawbacks presently concerning the solar industry ranging from dependance on China’s slave labor to effectively getting rid of old panels.
Unless actual progress is made in the entire supply chain, it is not recommended to deploy solar panels on a large scale, and develop a dependence on such environmentally unsustainable technology.
Article cross-posted from our premium news partners at The Epoch Times.