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Solar Power Creates Waste and Pollution


By H. Sterling Burnett,  The Heartland Institute

The mainstream media may be finally waking up to the fact solar power isn’t as environmentally friendly as its promoters have claimed and as they have been largely uncritically reporting.

My The Heartland Institute colleagues and I have previously described the environmental impact of producing solar energy, from the production of solar panels in terms of waste and pollution, and their operations’ impacts on birds and other species and footprint on land.

Another problem Heartland scholars have discussed on multiple occasions is the growing solar panel waste problem, from broken panels and those that have reached the end of their useful lives.

The latter problem is beginning to get the attention it deserves. A recent investigative report by the BBC found the billions of solar panels currently on roofs and at industrial solar facilities worldwide, and the tens of billions more to be installed under the plans of governments around the globe, are creating or will soon create mountains of waste the industry has no good way to handle.

It is difficult to dispose of or recycle decommissioned solar panels. Currently, most used solar panels are either taken to landfills or shipped for use overseas. Fewer than 1 in 10 solar panels are recycled.

Solar panels are typically removed when the energy they produce declines significantly, usually between 20 and 30 years if they have not been damaged or become nonfunctional previously. Such panels still produce energy, but significantly less than is required for homeowners, businesses, and utilities to benefit. Some companies have found a growing market for used, substandard solar panels in developing countries. The panels’ useful lives do come to an end eventually, however, so this just shifts the waste disposal problem from developed countries to poorer nations.

In addition, improved solar technologies are moving the waste problem closer in time. As with televisions, computers, automobiles, and other technologies, many people are replacing existing solar panels with newer, more efficient ones as the technology improves, after just 10 or 15 years of use, long before the end of the panels’ functional lives, as discussed by the BBC. That creates more waste sooner.

Solar panels contain an admixture of valuable and toxic materials, some recyclable, some not, or at least not easily. Large amounts of glass are used, of course, but also small amounts of copper, silver, and various critical materials. Because of the way the panels are composed, it is expensive to recycle them, as detailed by the BBC. Even when recycling is undertaken, it still doesn’t deal with most of the waste. As Nicolas Defrenne of Soren, a French firm working with others to recycle solar panels in France, told the BBC, “Over 60% of the value is contained in 3% of the weight of the solar panels.”

In addition, solar panels contain toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and selenium. The blending of recyclable and toxic elements makes teasing the small amount of valuable materials in each panel out from the toxic ones prohibitively expensive.

“The reason you do not see more companies doing solar panel recycling is because the economics don’t make sense,” A. J. Orben, vice president at We Recycle Solar, told GreenBiz. “It costs more to break a panel down and recover the raw materials than what the raw materials themselves are worth.”

How big is the challenge? An analyst the BBC consulted estimated there could currently be 2.5 billion solar panels installed on rooftops and at industrial solar facilities worldwide. With a current annual installation growth rate in the double digits and governments subsidizing and mandating ever-more solar power be used, we can expect hundreds of billions of panels to be installed over the next few decades—if sufficient raw materials can be mined and transformed into panels, a big if at present.

Ute Collier, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, described the challenge to the BBC:

It’s going to be a waste mountain by 2050, unless we get recycling chains going now. …

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.

That’s just the solar energy waste disposal problem. Other expensive difficulties arise when companies developing large industrial solar facilities don’t account for indirect environmental impacts of the development, as solar developers discovered in a recent court case.

A federal jury recently awarded a couple in southwest Georgia $135.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a lawsuit filed against Silicon Ranch Corp. and its contractor IEA Inc., after runoff from the 1,000 acre Lumpkin Solar facility polluted waters and soils on their rural property and destroyed a trophy fishing lake.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recently praised the Lumpkin facility for providing green energy to its Georgia data center. “We thank Silicon Ranch … for their dedication to successful execution and for sharing our commitment to have a positive impact on the communities where we locate,” Meta’s renewable energy director said upon inking the deal for power.

Based on the pollution it caused, the power it produced can hardly be thought of as green or having a positive impact on at least some people in the community.

It seems that when IEA cleared about 1,000 acres of timberland, farm, and hunting land to construct Silicon Ranch’s 100 megawatt Lumpkin solar facility, it failed to install adequate pollution control measures. This may have been a moneysaving move, but it ended up costing them a lot. Heavy rains washed silt and sediment onto the property of Shaun and Amie Harris.

“The result is what one would expect—when it rained, pollution poured downhill and downstream onto the neighbors’ property, inundating wetlands with silt and sediment, and turning a 21-acre trophy fishing lake into a mud hole,” said James E. Butler, the couple’s attorney, in a statement.

Rather than exercising due diligence and the normal duty of care, the companies “created, operated, and maintained a nuisance … that caused sedimentation to pollute plaintiffs’ wetlands, streams, and lake,” Federal District Judge Clay D. Land ruled. “The court further finds that this nuisance has continued for approximately two years unabated.”

This is just one case, but it is something to watch out for as more large solar facilities are developed. Environmental problems from these operations can come in many forms.

Sources: Climate-Science Press; CFACT; BBC


H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is the director of The Heartland Institute’s Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.