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Why solar panels might not actually be good for the environment after all

Audacy 7/18/2022 Lauren Barry
Solar panels on a residential home. © Provided by WBBM Radio Chicago Solar panels on a residential home.

As solar energy becomes more popular in the U.S. and drives a growing industry, some are wondering just how much better it is for the environment than traditional energy sources.

While it appears that solar panels do provide a more eco-friendly energy alternative than some other types of power, there are complications. For example, creation of the panels still relies on fossil fuels and disposal of panels can be costly or even dangerous.

In California, panels purchased during a solar power push that began in 2006 are nearing the end of their typical 25-year life cycle, according to the Los Angeles Times. Now, many are landing in landfills, “where components that contain toxic heavy metals such as selenium and cadmium can contaminate groundwater,” said the outlet.

Serasu Duran, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business in Canada said that “not much consideration has been put on the end of life of these technologies,” during a rush to implement them, the L.A. Times reported.

Throughout the U.S., around 140,000 solar panels are installed each day, making the eventual trash burden greater and greater. The solar industry is expected to grow even more in the next decade.

Although EcoWatch, an environmental news outlet, reported this week that solar panel production and the mining needed to obtain solar panel materials contributes to greenhouse gasses and pollution, it also said this impact could be mitigated by recycling.

“Lack of solar panel recycling availability is only creating more e-waste, which could eventually lead to solar panel material scarcity,” said EcoWatch.

However, the L.A. Times explained that recycling solar panels can be costly and difficult.

“Recycling solar panels isn’t a simple process,” said the outlet. “Highly specialized equipment and workers are needed to separate the aluminum frame and junction box from the panel without shattering it into glass shards. Specialized furnaces are used to heat panels to recover silicon. In most states, panels are classified as hazardous materials, which require expensive restrictions on packaging, transport and storage.”

National Renewable Energy Laboratory data cited by the Times said the estimated that costs to recycle a panel are $20 to $30, compared to $1 to $2 if they are sent landfills.

“Scientists have been working on a better solution, but as of now, there isn’t a flushed-out system to recycle old solar panels,” said EcoWatch. “And there certainly aren’t enough places to do it.”

There are options to increase solar panel recycling going forward.

Jigar Shah, co-founder of Generate Capital, a fund that invests in sustainable infrastructure and director of the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, recommends that policymakers require manufacturers to come up with a standard design that makes panels easier and cheaper to recycle.

Recently, the European Union Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive has made the producers of solar panels responsible for end-of-life collection and recycling. In Washington, the Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program – which was passed in 2017 and goes into effect in 2025 – also requires solar panel manufacturers to finance end-of-life recycling.

“It’s the only producer-responsibility law in the United States,” said the Times.

These initiatives are expected to result in recycling costs being included in the price of solar panels. Even so, the panels themselves have become much more affordable in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average cost of solar PV panels has dropped nearly 70% since 2014.

“Markets for solar energy are maturing rapidly around the country since solar electricity is now economically competitive with conventional energy sources in most states,” said the department. It also said that panels on just 22,000 square miles of the nation’s total land area could supply enough electricity to power the entire country.

“Solar energy hasn’t reached its full potential as a clean energy source for the United States, and significant work remains to be done to drive deployment of solar technologies,” the department added. In addition to better plans for recycling, it called for improvements to the solar grid, as well as permitting, financing and customer acquisition. “Technological advances and innovative market solutions are still needed to increase efficiency, drive down costs, and enable utilities to rely on solar for baseload power.”

Once solar panels are installed, they don’t produce the same harmful emissions that fossil fuels do.

“We’ve discussed all the ways in which solar panels can be harmful to the environment, but let’s not forget that they’re still a far better option than non-renewable energy alternatives,” said EcoWatch.

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