Solar has become a front runner in this arena, with both developed and low income nations tapping into solar panels to capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. It has become somewhat of a spectacle, with innovative projects the world over demonstrating how the sun can redefine our daily lives if well utilised.
From the floating farm in the Maldives, the Solar Bike Path in the Netherlands, the solar powered train tunnel in Belgium and airports that run entirely on solar power, there is no end in sight for what solar energy promises. In fact, in the tiny island nation of Tokelau, located in the South Pacific Ocean, the country runs entirely on solar energy.
So entrenched has solar energy become that it is poised to be the dominant source of energy in almost all continents in the coming three decades.
But as we get excited and glamourise the wonders of sun-generated energy, a catastrophe is brewing; one that parallels the plastic waste menace.
The not-so-bright side of solar energy
Most of the solar panels, the heart of the solar energy innovation, were installed about two decades ago. The average lifespan of these panels is estimated to be approximately between 20 to 30 years. But as the world warmed up to solar energy and technologies, it never quite paid attention to how to dispose of them, or manage the waste.
Now, we are staring at a disaster. Picture this, in 2016, there were about 250,000 tonnes of solar panel waste globally, and this figure will hit 78 million tonnes in 2050, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS).
These panels contain chemicals and heavy metals that, if wrongly discarded, would be harmful to our environment and human health.
Almost all solar panel modules are made of glass, and that glass cannot be recycled without breaking the entire panel due to impurities that include lead, antimony, cadmium and plastics known to cause cancer, death and air pollution.
The best practice, therefore, has been to invest in recycling the panels. But with recycling costs being higher than the value of the materials being recovered, solar companies have opted to reuse, repurpose, dump into landfills or sell them to secondary markets.
This trend has been referenced in a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Electric Power Research Institute.
“Current technology, infrastructure, and processes associated with recycling PV modules are not optimised for cost-effective recovery of high value materials. As a result, the cost of recycling is often outweighed by cheaper, more accessible disposal options,” the report states.
Managing solar panel waste
Jude Mutua, a renewable energy expert, concurs: “Recycling of solar panels poses similar challenges associated with the old TVs due to the exorbitant cost of recycling them, the diminished value after recycling and the high concentration of toxic metals.” “And as technology evolves,” he adds, “these TVs fail to excite the markets and buyers are usually not keen on their reuse. That is why it is imperative to explore sustainable models to handle used solar panels and the wastes associated with them.”
One of the contributing factors to the growing amount of solar panel waste is the dumping of panels to secondary markets, including in poor countries. With weak legislation and a pent-up demand for low cost panels, there has been a proliferation of second-hand panels with low quality control that operate for a few years before reaching the end of their life.
This dumping of solar junk in countries with a scarcity of solar panel recycling facilities only exacerbates the global e-waste menace.
The explosion of solar home systems in Africa, for example, where the majority of rural households are not connected to the national grid, has equally fanned e-waste. These miniature systems, containing a battery, solar panel, a charge controller, LED bulbs and a mobile charger are enough to cater for the basic energy needs of households, with some even powering television sets.
Aggressive marketing by solar companies, through an innovative model christened Pay as you go, that allow households to pay for these systems in installments, coupled with governments incentives for solar products in a bid to address the energy poverty, has lit up Africa – but at a cost.
Waste management companies, like the Kenyan-based startup SolarSap that collects discarded solar panels, say that faulty home solar systems have become an eyesore, as users discard them anywhere. “We have been working with community groups to encourage them to sell us the faulty systems, some of which we dismantle and send the parts to countries like South Africa or China that have the capacity to recycle,” said Timothy Khisa, the founder of SolarSap. “There hasn’t been enough education and awareness on the dangers of discarding these panels among small scale users, and that is an environmental time bomb.”
Waste regulation has been touted as the silver bullet to the e-waste menace, and various countries, alive to the growing threat to the environment and human health, are acting.
The EU, for example, has entrenched laws that compel solar panel producers to fund collection and recycling of their products.
In the US, Washington State made history in 2017 by becoming the first state to draft a bill introducing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) programme for solar panels. From 2023 on, all manufacturers will be required to finance collection and recycling of panels, according to the law.
Last year, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) gave the nod to regulations that categorise solar panels as universal waste and not hazardous waste, which relaxed regulatory hiccups around collection and shipping them. However, they would still be classified as hazardous should tests show they exceed harmful metals concentration limits as determined by federal or California law, and waste handlers are expected to carry out tests when they are discarding the panels.
“The most crucial aspect in managing solar panel waste and arresting a situation that is threatening to spiral out of control is for countries to enact strong e-waste legislation, build an ecosystem that supports and encourages waste management and recycling companies and pass the responsibility of managing solar products that have reached the end of their life to the manufactures rather than the users,” said Mutua.
This article is published as part of an ongoing partnership between FairPlanet and The Beam.
Image by Andreas Gucklhorn.