The disposal of used solar panels is a huge and growing problem that is not being sufficiently addressed, writes Michael Shellenberger, founder of the pro-nuclear citizens movement Environmental Progress (EP). He argues that a fee should be imposed on solar panels which should go into a fund to pay for recyling and clean-up.
The last few years have seen growing concern over what happens to solar panels at the end of their life. Consider the following statements:
- The problem of solar panel disposal “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment” because it “is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.”
- “The reality is that there is a problem now, and it’s only going to get larger, expanding as rapidly as the PV industry expanded 10 years ago.”
- “Contrary to previous assumptions, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater.”
Were these statements made by the right-wing Heritage Foundation? Koch-funded global warming deniers? The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal?
None of the above. Rather, the quotes come from a senior Chinese solar official, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. solar industry, and research scientists with the German Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics.
With few environmental journalists willing to report on much of anything other than the good news about renewables, it’s been left to environmental scientists and solar industry leaders to raise the alarm.
Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel
“I’ve been working in solar since 1976 and that’s part of my guilt,” the veteran solar developer told Solar Power World last year. “I’ve been involved with millions of solar panels going into the field, and now they’re getting old.”
The trouble with solar waste
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated there was about 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste in the world at the end of that year. IRENA projected that this amount could reach 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. For this reason, the whole solar panel is considered hazardous by many experts and governments, including the state of California, which is trying to prevent the flow of old solar panels to landfills.
“Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass,” notes San Jose State environmental studies professor Dustin Mulvaney. “However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.”
Researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) undertook a study for U.S. solar-owning utilities to plan for end-of-life and concluded that solar panel “disposal in “regular landfills [is] not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil” and so “disposal is potentially a major issue.”
The fact that cadmium can be washed out of solar modules by rainwater is increasingly a concern for local environmentalists like the Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake in Virginia, where a 6,350 acre solar farm to partly power Microsoft data centers is being proposed.
“We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” Sean Fogarty of the group told me. “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.”
Today recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills
There is real-world precedent for this concern. A tornado in 2015 broke 200,000 solar modules at southern California solar farm Desert Sunlight.
“Any modules that were broken into small bits of glass had to be swept from the ground,” Mulvaney explained, “so lots of rocks and dirt got mixed in that would not work in recycling plants that are designed to take modules. These were the cadmium-based modules that failed [hazardous] waste tests, so were treated at a [hazardous] waste facility. But about 70 percent of the modules were actually sent to recycling, and the recycled metals are in new panels today.”
And when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, the nation’s second largest solar farm, responsible for 40 percent of the island’s solar energy, lost a majority of its panels.
Many experts urge mandatory recycling. The main finding promoted by IRENA’s in its 2016 report was that, “If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material [from used solar panels] could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.”
But IRENA’s study did not compare the value of recovered material to the cost of new materials and admitted that “Recent studies agree that PV material availability is not a major concern in the near term, but critical materials might impose limitations in the long term.”
They might, but today recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills. “The absence of valuable metals/materials produces economic losses,” wrote a team of scientists in the International Journal of Photoenergy in their study of solar panel recycling last year, and “Results are coherent with the literature.”
Chinese and Japanese experts agree. “If a recycling plant carries out every step by the book,” a Chinese expert told The South China Morning Post, “their products can end up being more expensive than new raw materials.”
Toshiba Environmental Solutions told Nikkei Asian Review last year that,
Low demand for scrap and the high cost of employing workers to disassemble the aluminum frames and other components will make it difficult to create a profitable business unless recycling companies can charge several times more than the target set by [Japan’s environment ministry].
Can solar producers take responsibility?
In 2012, First Solar stopped putting a share of its revenues into a fund for long-term waste management. “Customers have the option to use our services when the panels get to the end of life stage,” a spokesperson told Solar Power World. “We’ll do the recycling, and they’ll pay the price at that time.”
Or they won’t. “Either it becomes economical or it gets mandated. ” said EPRI’s Cara Libby. “But I’ve heard that it will have to be mandated because it won’t ever be economical.”
Any mechanism that finances the cost of recycling PV modules with current revenues is not sustainable
Last July, Washington became the first U.S. state to require manufacturers selling solar panels to have a plan to recycle. But the legislature did not require manufacturers to pay a fee for disposal. “Washington-based solar panel manufacturer Itek Energy assisted with the bill’s writing,” noted Solar Power World.
The problem with putting the responsibility for recycling or long-term storage of solar panels on manufacturers, says the insurance actuary Milliman, is that it increases the risk of more financial failures like the kinds that afflicted the solar industry over the last decade.
[A]ny mechanism that finances the cost of recycling PV modules with current revenues is not sustainable. This method raises the possibility of bankruptcy down the road by shifting today’s greater burden of ‘caused’ costs into the future. When growth levels off then PV producers would face rapidly increasing recycling costs as a percentage of revenues.
Since 2016, Sungevity, Beamreach, Verengo Solar, SunEdison, Yingli Green Energy, Solar World, and Sunivahave gone bankrupt.
The result of such bankruptcies is that the cost of managing or recycling PV waste will be born by the public. “In the event of company bankruptcies, PV module producers would no longer contribute to the recycling cost of their products,” notes Milliman, “leaving governments to decide how to deal with cleanup.”
Governments of poor and developing nations are often not equipped to deal with an influx of toxic solar waste, experts say. German researchers at the Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics warned that poor and developing nations are at higher risk of suffering the consequences.
There are firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” but instead sell panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems
Dangers and hazards of toxins in photovoltaic modules appear particularly large in countries where there are no orderly waste management systems… Especially in less developed countries in the so-called global south, which are particularly predestined for the use of photovoltaics because of the high solar radiation, it seems highly problematic to use modules that contain pollutants.
The attitude of some solar recyclers in China appears to feed this concern. “A sales manager of a solar power recycling company,” the South China Morning Newsreported, “believes there could be a way to dispose of China’s solar junk, nonetheless.”
“We can sell them to Middle East… Our customers there make it very clear that they don’t want perfect or brand new panels. They just want them cheap… There, there is lots of land to install a large amount of panels to make up for their low performance. Everyone is happy with the result.”
In other words, there are firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” but instead sell panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems. In the past, communities living near electronic waste dumps in Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India have been primary e-waste destinations.
According to a 2015 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of electronic waste is illegally traded and dumped in poor nations. Writes UNEP:
[T]housands of tonnes of e-waste are falsely declared as second-hand goods and exported from developed to developing countries, including waste batteries falsely described as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors declared as metal scrap.
Unlike other forms of imported e-waste, used solar panels can enter nations legally before eventually entering e-waste streams. As the United Nation Environment Program notes, “loopholes in the current Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives allow the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries (70% of the collected WEEE ends up in unreported and largely unknown destinations).”
A path forward on solar panel waste
Perhaps the biggest problem with solar panel waste is that there is so much of it, and that’s not going to change any time soon, for a basic physical reason: sunlight is dilute and diffuse and thus require large collectors to capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. Those large surface areas, in turn, require an order of magnitude more in materials — whether today’s toxic combination of glass, heavy metals, and rare earth elements, or some new material in the future — than other energy sources.
Solar requires 15x more materials than nuclear
All of that waste creates a large quantity of material to track, which in turn requires coordinated, overlapping, and different responses at the international, national, state, and local levels.
The first step is a fee on solar panel purchases to make sure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is internalized into the price of solar panels
The local level is where action to dispose of electronic and toxic waste takes place, often under state mandates. In the past, differing state laws have motivated the U.S. Congress to put in place national regulations. Industry often prefers to comply with a single national standard rather than multiple different state standards. And as the problem of the secondary market for solar shows, ultimately there needs to be some kind of international regulation.
The first step is a fee on solar panel purchases to make sure that the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste is internalized into the price of solar panels and not externalized onto future taxpayers. An obvious solution would be to impose a new fee on solar panels that would go into a federal disposal and decommissioning fund.
The funds would then, in the future, be dispensed to state and local governments to pay for the removal and recycling or long-term storage of solar panel waste. The advantage of this fund over extended producer responsibility is that it would insure that solar panels are safely decommissioned, recycled, or stored over the long-term, even after solar manufacturers go bankrupt.
Given the decentralized nature of solar energy production, it is especially important that the whole society be involved in protecting itself from exposure to dangerous toxins
Second, the federal government should encourage citizen enforcement of laws to decommission, store, or recycle solar panels so that they do not end up in landfills. Currently, citizens have the right to file lawsuits against government agencies and corporations to force them to abide by various environmental laws, including ones that protect the public from toxic waste.
Solar should be no different. Given the decentralized nature of solar energy production, and lack of technical expertise at the local level, it is especially important that the whole society be involved in protecting itself from exposure to dangerous toxins.
“We have a County and State approval process over the next couple months,” Fogarty of Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake told me, “but it has become clear that local authorities have very little technical breadth to analyze the impacts of such a massive solar power plant.”
Lack of technical expertise can be a problem when solar developers like Sustainable Power Group, or sPower, incorrectly claim that the cadmium in its panels is not water soluble. That claim has been contradicted by the previously-mentioned Stuttgart research scientists who found cadmium from solar panels “can be almost completely washed out…over a period of several months…by rainwater.”
Third, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Partnership for Waste Management, as part of its International Environmental Partnership Center, should more strictly monitor e-waste shipments and encourage nations importing used solar panels into secondary markets to impose a fee to cover the cost of recycling or long-term management. Such a recycling and waste management fund could help nations address their other e-waste problems while supporting the development of a new, high-tech industry in recycling solar panels.
None of this will come quickly, or easily, and some solar industry executives will resist internalizing the cost of safely storing, or recycling, solar panel waste, perhaps for understandable reasons. They will rightly note that there are other kinds of electronic waste in the world.
But it is notable that some new forms of electronic waste, namely smartphones like the iPhone, have in many cases replaced things like stereo systems, GPS devices, and alarm clocks and thus reduced their contribution to the e-waste stream. And no other electronics industry makes being “clean” its main selling point.
Wise solar industry leaders can learn from the past and be proactive in seeking stricter regulation in accordance with growing scientific evidence that solar panels pose a risk of toxic chemical contamination. “If waste issues are not preemptively addressed,” warns Mulvaney, “the industry risks repeating the disastrous environmental mistakes of the electronics industry.”
If the industry responds with foresight, Mulvaney notes, it could end up sparking clean innovation including “developing PV modules without hazardous inputs and recycled rare metals.” And that’s something everyone can get powered up about.
Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) is founder of the pro-nuclear citizens movement Environmental Progress (EP).
Michael is (co-)author of many books and essays including The Death of Environmentalism, Break Through, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, Evolve, and Love Your Monsters. He writes for publications including Scientific American, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.
This article was first published on Forbes.com and is republished here with permission.
Helmut Frik says
A big mix of techologies ourd in a big pot, and then the voulmes of one tecnologie mixed up with substances of other technologies, and parts of materials used for nuclear mixed up with more than complete masses for solar and so on.
Lets look if the cited masses are reasonable. there should be a use of 15.000t / TWh for solar power, fo this roughly 6000t of steel. 1Twh is produced by solar power with 1500kWh/yer*kWp – lower than desert, higher than at the poles, so easy to calculate, roughly average – in 30 years by 22MWp of solar.
22MWp should require 6000t of steel? this would be 6t of steel – 6000kg – to mount 22kWp or 66 Modules, so roughly 100kg of steel per module. Along with 3000t of cement (for what is the cement used? Neither roof mounted solar modules, nor greund monted modules use cement today or in the last years – maybe it’s the building below roof mounted solar?
While nuclear needs exacly no uranium ore to run as it seems acording to the data. Glass also seems by factor 2-3 too high.
I can assume that uranium ore is included in ”other’ category and the reason you can’t see it’s contribution in the figure of standard resources (perhaps it sould be glowing bright green?) is due to the fact its only representative of around 25-35 tonnes/TWh
Helmut Frik says
The data -i find tells that it needs about 30t of yellowcake (80% Uranium) per TWh produced. Cince Uranium Ore contains about 0,15% uranium, about 18000t of uranum ore must be processed, to collect this a lot more material must be moved around.
Aluminum, silicon dioxyde, and iron ore, which are the main compolnets of standard solar panels, are usually used when they are naturally concentrated above 80%. Only the copper and the silver, used in much smaller amounts in solar panels are made from ores with lower concentration.
Silver is used – according o numbers of Heraeus, which i found, with around 10mg/W, so the 22 MW contain 22.000.000*0,01g=220.000g or 220kg, of which most can be recyceled after use. Silver can be replaced by copper or Aluminum if costs for silver rise (if it becomes rare), copper can be replaced by Aluminum if it becomes rare. Aluminum and silicon dioxyde are available in practically infinite amounts.
By the way, solar modules within the EU are never disposed into the field but always recyceled due to EU regulations.
Jan Veselý says
I once again looked at the DOE Quadrennial Technology Review. There is a table about water consumption, just after the material needed for power plant construction. It is about 750 gallon/MWh for nuclear energy a.k.a. 2.78 Mt/TWh of water consumption. PV needs about 100 gallon/MWh (material processing before construction), wind power next to nothing.
Jan Veselý says
Just some remarks:
– Coal plant needs 800k to 1000k tons of coal per TWh.
– The material intensity of plants come from 2015 DOE publication which cites them from 2014 Argonne NL car LCA analysis which probably cites some even older study. This means that the PV and wind data are based on at least 5-10 years old data, a.k.a. obsolete and not significant for future construction. Numbers are much lower now a cement was practially designed out of solar farm construction
And also, I don’t know original assumptions of authors of those numbers (irradiation, capacity factors, wind speed, lifetime of power plants, …). Number may vary A LOT.
– The article also contains logical fallacies, f.e. the cadmium.
It is used just in a small fraction of PV panels (<10%). Author writes the article as the cadmium would be problem of all panels. Also, where are rare earth elements in PV panels? Same fallacy with electronic waste.
Conclusion: Wind and PV power waste is several orders of magnitude smaller problem than waste and pollution from fossil fueled power plants. It is technically possible to reduce this problem to next-to-nothing and it would cost a trinket. The nuclear power waste (both fuel and plants) is still a problem to be solved.
So how come used solar panels are not re-processed, but dumped? And could we have some numbers supporting your assertions on waste treatment cost?
Jan Veselý says
Sure, I come from the country where we areály pak recyclation fee when buying PV panels. It is 8.5 CZK per kg. 300W panel weights 18 kg and 1 EUR=25 CZK. Recyclation fee adds cost 0.02 EUR/W, a trinket. But thé recyclation companies are fighting to get into this business like crazy. It is certainly a bargain.
You disregard the author’s referenced figures due to their age. Do you have a source for more recent figures relating to solar resource use?
Also you make a pretty sweeping claim: ‘it is technically possible to reduce this problem to next-to-nothing, and would cost a trinket’ – care to elaborate?
With regards to nuclear power waste (fuel and plant) being a problem to be solved – I am assuming that you are not contesting the tiny relative throughput of material per TWh relative to all other energy sources – and you are referring to the irradiated waste products? What exactly would consider as being ‘solved?’
Extensive time and money has and is being spent by many IAEA nations in designing not only geological storage faciltiies – which can be accurately predicted to safely store (without leeching) the highest activity waste for periods of time far eclipsing the history of humanity – as well as other near surface facilities for the extremely conservatively classified mid to low level waste.
Is it always going to be guilty until proven innocent for nuclear with respect to waste management?
Helmut Frik says
I think it is allowed to swith on the brain instead of requiring references to other documents. When in practice nobody uses concrete to install solar modules on roofs or open fields, Data which shows piles of concrete per kWp installed is most likely obsolete for any use.
Also it can be calculated how much stell up to date constructions really use as far as steel is concerned, e.g. here: https://pv-stahlbau.de/produkte/montagegestell-zm1-v/
By the way in europe the price for recycling solar modules are alredy included in the sales price:https://www.elektrogesetz.de/themen/photovoltaik-pv/ with negible effect on the price, because the reused materials pay at least the mayor part of the recycling.
nuclear has the problem that no finalised deposition cycle could be tested anywhere yet – it simply takes too long. While recykling of matrerials for wind or solar power can be shown in practice, als how to transform (burn) parts which are not worth recycling to materials which are non toxic and already existing in the environment without causing harm.
“Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. ”
So all solar panels or bad because some contain hazardous materials? If you have a problem with CdTe solar panels , rally against those, instead of throwing them on one heap with benign silicon-based models which form the majority off the market.
Maybe, Mr. Shellenberger could clarify which rare earth metals are used in which kind of PV- panels. Because to my best knowledge there are only some experimental solar cell types that are not yet out of the laboratory that contain a minute amount of rare earth metals.
Sanjee Jain says
Solar power in India received the much-needed boost through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) in 2010. It is safe to assume that the majority of solar installations in the country were set up after that and the end of life for already-operating solar panels would happen after 2035.
This is one of the reasons why no one is thinking about what will happen to solar panels once they are not able to generate power. The question is how will India dispose 100 gigawatt (GW) worth of solar panels in the next 20 years? Assuming that an average panel is sized 250 watt, 100 GW will amount to almost 7.76 million tonnes of e-waste (77.6 lakh tonnes to be exact) at the end of a lifetime (25 years) of a solar plant.
At one point in time, the Ministry ( MNRE ) was looking to do a research and development project on the recycling of solar PV cells and modules, but the project could not come to fruition. Right now, there are no rules or directives from the ministry in this regard.”
There is no mandate in the rules which the MNRE is referring to in respect to solar PV specifically at the moment.
It’s amazing reading through all comments, which are rather focused on defending the solar industry and discrediting the nuclear one than accepting the fact of a real existing hazardous waste which is nowhere regulated and nowhere under control.
It’s just about admitting that Solar has this kind of a real problem and needs to be solved and openly discussed, and that Nuclear is less problematic than actually politicized and polemically disseminated because new technology such as fast neutron reactors and related research will solve the nuclear waste issue by recycling and re-use. Keep your mind open.
Helmut Frik says
Why shouls someone admit that there is some haadorus waste not regulated around Solar modules, when
a) the recycling of solar modules is highly regulated in civilised countries
b) hazadorus material is only included in a special kind of modul, which is not the kind of module which is commonly used?
And why should we ignore the well known and multiple times bigger waste problems of nuclear?
Germany is still spending billions of Euros on cleaning up the mess left over from uranium mining, and that’s just the less problematic mining part. Decomissioning of each nuclear plant is a buillion Euro procect, and keeping care of the wastes is a near infinite lasting drain of money in the future.
Keeping care of all the problems of nuclear power generation is simply too expensive.
Which causes some nuclear fanboys to create ristks for renewable power production which do not exist in practice. As simple as that.
Solar modules including poly- and mono-cristalline cells as well as amorph cells are regulated in the EU by the WEEE Waste Framework directive 2008/98/EC revised 2012/19/EU and in the US by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
read : https://energypost.eu/if-solar-panels-are-so-clean-why-do-they-produce-so-much-toxic-waste/
Germany is still struggling with the compensation of closing nuclear plants by coal fired power plants. Going 100% for renewables in Germany will take a very long time and looks not to be very realistic at this stage of the process.
It’s not so simple as that…
This is the correct link
Helmut Frik says
Germany is not replacing nuclear with coal, […]
Fact i that germany is phasing out coal at lower speed because it phases out nuclear at faster speed. Germany decided to phase out cholea before typhus, the author of this blog asks the rightful question if phasing out typhus before cholera would not have been a better decision. Some people would prefere to spread cholera further so people will not get typhus.
[…..]every few weeks another coal block in germany is closnig down, and there are no new oes comming past them (Datteln IV as a exception, which is almost 10 years late and might never start up) Last closure notice was from Wuppertal Elberfeld.
There is zero chance that hard coal will survive current market coditions for a longer time.
Thermal coal in Australia is at 120$/t, just to get it in the ship in the harbour. To get it in a power staion in germany rises this cost roughly to 120€/t. For about 8MWh thermal. With 40% netto efficiency of the plant this is 3,2 MWh electric for sale. Or 37,5€/MWh for coal alone. With 16€/t for emission rights and 0,8kg/kWh roughly as emissions, this is another 12,8€/MWh. So short time variable prices for hard coal power is >50€MWh for existing plants, and with money for employees, and some repairs it is well above 60€MWh. New renewable is tenderd below 50€/MWh, new solar below 40€/MWh. So hard coal leaves the market, gettng less and less full load hours where prices are above 60€/MWh which are needed to survive in short to mid range.
And the “as simple as that” did ot reference that going 100% renewable is that simple, but that the cause why some people try to create a waste problem for solar panels and wind power is that simple.[ ….]
I don’t know where you found your power generation numbers, but there are more factors to be considered when seriously comparing one type of energy versus another type.
You have to consider the whole value chain up to the price that the end-client pays.
In regard to the solar power costs of 40€/MWh, the end user costs paid by the private customer to the grid are exceeding now €304/MWh.
Household electricity prices in France however are actually around €188/MWh,
thus 62% less than in Germany. Main reason: over 60% of the electric energy is produced by nuclear power and green energy is also heavily subsidized.
Subsidizing green and especially solar energy costs the tax payer (all of us) a bunch of money. But this is a subject that nobody really wants to touch. But again it is a fact.
…and unfortunately the solar cell and module waste remains still a big unsolved issue. Whatever you may come up again as arguments…. I’m sorry, but at this stage of time, you just have to accept an unsolved solar modules recycling issue.
Great news! Germany stoped using german coal. Bad news: Germany imports now cheaper coal to keep coal plants running…..maybe this is the promised “Energiewende”
Sungold Solar says
Thanks for writing such kind of important article. Actually, Solar panels may be an appealing choice for clean energy, but they harbor their share of toxic chemicals. The toxic chemicals are a problem at the beginning of a solar panel’s life — during its construction — and at the end of its life when it is disposed of. These two intervals are times when the toxic chemicals can enter into the environment.
Thanks Sungold Solar for your contribution to this critical issue.
My questions are: what has been done so far for mitigating this environmental risk? Are the users and subsidizing organizations aware of this issue? If yes, what do they intend to do? If not, then we might have a serious problem.