Tackling solar e-waste in the renewable energy era


An article from BBC News, despite its somewhat inflammatory title, raises some excellent points around the upcoming issue of electronic waste created by the solar industry, and what must be done now to mitigate it.

The article, penned by Daniel Gordon, highlights how the relatively short lifespan of solar panels will soon become a major problem unless governments start building up the infrastructure needed to recycle them now.

The solar panel industry has been growing exponentially since the first commercial panels were introduced, and in 2021 over 1,000 TWh of energy was generated by solar for the first time, an increase of over 22% from the previous year. Whilst renewable energy is becoming one of the most vital tools for reducing carbon emissions, it is true that current solar panels are generally only guaranteed to work effectively for up to 25-30 years, although there are examples of them generating electricity for longer (35-40 years).

Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight into electrical energy. PV cells can be made from a range of materials, but most commercial cells are made up of silicon layered with metal, glass and plastic. Like any electrical component, they often use rare elements such as silver. PV cells become less effective over time, and can eventually fail, due to exposure to the elements: UV radiation, heat, moisture, and mechanical stresses can all cause the panels to degrade.

In 2021 over 1,000 TWh of energy was generated by solar for the first time

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory said that the majority of studies report discolouration/browning and delamination as reasons for the degradation of solar panels, with corrosion due to salts, acids, or pollutants also being a significant factor. A 2022 review suggested that these external stress factors could be exacerbated by poor processing, often identified as the biggest internal cause of solar panel failure.

A combination of these different stresses means that after a few decades in service many solar arrays need to be decommissioned, however, there hasn’t been much need to do this until fairly recently, meaning the technology is not very developed and if action is not taken the world could be quickly overwhelmed with solar panel waste.

Ute Collier, Deputy Director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, stated that “by 2030, we think we’re going to have four million tonnes [of scrap] – which is still manageable – but by 2050, we could end up with more than 200 million tonnes globally.” The solution to this problem is not to slow down on solar energy – we need as much renewable energy as we can get if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change – but instead to build the infrastructure now so that we do not become overwhelmed in the future.

By 2050, we could end up with more than 200 million tonnes of solar e-waste globally

Luckily, there has been a step in the right direction this year, as the world’s first factory solely for solar panel recycling was opened in France over the summer by a company called ROSI. It is hoped that eventually they will be able to recover a majority of the materials put into the solar panels, including precious materials such as copper and silver, for use in future solar panels.

This will be crucial as we transition towards renewable energy, as many of these elements (especially silver, which is important for many commercial solar cells) are already becoming scarce and thus much more expensive. Electronic waste in general has become a huge problem over the last decade and this has driven up prices for precious metals such as nickel and lithium that are commonly used in electronics.

This can partly be attributed to the massive cultural problem of single-use items that are thrown into landfill rather than being repaired or recycled – less than 20% of e-waste is recycled. Governments must act now to create infrastructure for the recycling of electronics. The precious minerals that we need for making new electronics must be harvested from old devices and recycled, otherwise subsidies for very expensive materials will cost governments much, much more in the long run.

Image: Moritz Kindler via Unsplash

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