California is the center of startups for innovation and high technology because of Silicon Valley. They adopted and innovated technologies faster than any other part of the world. Speaking of sustainability and renewable energy power, the solar power system remains the flag bearer of one of the cleanest energy-producing systems with almost no drawbacks. A usual solar panel has a warranty life of 20-25 years and can go up to 40-45 years.
Meanwhile, recycling and waste management are correlated businesses that make this world more sustainable. However, humans don’t do anything without measuring investment and profits. Recycling succeeds only when we get the best out of recycled products and make good profits. Otherwise, things go down to waste management and landfills. So is the case with solar panel piles in California.
The Dark Side of Solar Power
➡️California's groundwater polluted by toxic heavy metals from discarded rooftop solar panels
⚠️The global green energy recycling industry is woefully unprepared for the deluge of waste that is on the wayhttps://t.co/u0OqD3AM8T
— Prof. Michael Tanchum (@michaeltanchum) September 4, 2022
Soaring problems of rising solar piles
In the last decade, the prices of solar panels in ratio to their output dropped by almost 70%. In these times, more people went for solar roofs, and many updated their solar panels. According to Los Angeles Times, approximately 1.3 million houses installed solar panels in the last two decades.
Now, when people are updating their panels, and millions of these solar panels are retiring, we must find a way to recycle them. Otherwise, if not dealt with properly, these panels will contaminate water with toxic used materials inside them.
In the US, they recycle solar panels in two ways. One is through glass recycling facilities where they separate aluminum frames, copper wires, and plastic boxes behind the panel. The other is shredding the panel as received.
Solar Panel Recycling – “Glass composes most of the weight of a solar panel (about 75 percent), and glass recycling is already a well-established industry.”https://t.co/hIQqzTs3wa
— 🇺🇦 Hidetomo "💉💉💉💉💉ᵒ 😷" Katsura 🇺🇦🤪 (@polydron) May 8, 2022
According to C&EN, the recycling process costs $15-45 per panel, whereas dumping it in landfills costs a maximum of $5 with an average of $2. The issue with recycling solar panels with existing methods in the US is that recovered materials from recycling can generate only $3 per panel. Low output lessens the recycling motivation as a business. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory also found that the US only recycles 10% of solar panels, and dumps the rest in landfills.
Restructuring of policies around e-waste
To cope with such recycling issues, the world needs solar panel end-of-life policies, regulations, and innovative methods. We require innovative technologies that reduce the cost-to-revenue ratio in the recycling process.
An example would be Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment committee that declared solar panels reaching end-of-life as e-waste in 2014. They regulated all manufacturing companies to fund the recycling process at the end of their lives, resulting in France recycling 95% of solar panels.
The developed methods in Europe can recover more than 90% of silver and silicon. It is an economic opportunity and will reduce the requirement for these materials in the future. In addition, these retiring panels are maximum of 20 years of age, and PV module life is well above 40 years.
Instead of recycling, countries like the US can sell these panels to underdeveloped countries at a low cost of $3 per panel. They will get rid of what they want to, and people in far-flung areas of the world will have power.
Photo credits: The feature image has been taken by Caspar Rae.
Sources: Rachel Kisela (Los Angeles Times) / Mark Peplow (C&EN) / NREL / Joël Spaes (PV Magazine)