Dear EarthTalk: If the solar panels everyone is putting up now are obsolete in 20-30 years, how are we going to deal with all the waste?
-Paul B., Chevy Chase, MD
We love our solar panels, but in 10-20 years most of them will end up in landfills if we don’t figure out how to recycle them. See the article : Victorian public housing advocates push for solar panel pledge before state election. Credit: Pexels.com.
There are many features that the average consumer looks for when purchasing green alternatives for home electricity generation. Many hope to find the most efficient, lightest or most durable options, but what about the most recyclable?
This question is often overlooked when making such a purchase. Unfortunately, ignoring the product life cycle can have disastrous consequences, especially if reducing environmental impact is a concern.
Take solar panels for example. The average solar panel lasts about 25 years, and the vast majority of them were purchased within the last 10 years. This means that over the next 15 years, millions of old and damaged solar panel landfills will be flooded. A 2020 study by the federally funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimated that up to eight million tons of solar modules could end up in global landfills by 2030, and that by 2050 these solar panels could account for 10 percent of all electronic energy sources. showed he could. waste on the planet.
To make matters worse, if the waste is not disposed of properly, it can cause problems for the groundwater in its vicinity. Solar panels contain small amounts of toxic compounds such as lead and a carcinogen known as cadmium telluride. If any of these chemicals were to leach into a freshwater source, the water would be unsafe for use in most capacities.
Although solar panels can be recycled, there is no incentive to do so. About 80 to 85 percent of a solar panel made of materials such as aluminum, copper, silicon, and glass can be recycled; but the process will actually cost more than the cost of the raw material.
Thankfully, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies has been hard at work developing a comprehensive system for handling and recycling solar panels. By 2030, they plan to reduce the cost of recycling solar panels to just $3 per panel. This reduction would actually make solar panel recycling an economically feasible venture!
However, there is still the option of rebuilding new solar panels from old solar panels. However, this requires direct reuse of reclaimed materials. For example, silicon can be directly fed back into solar panels or even used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries – a functional storage unit for the energy generated by the use of solar panels.
But what about simply going green with solar panels? Instead of silicon solar panels (what people usually buy), there is another option known as Sunflare thin film solar panels. Lightweight modules have a carbon footprint 20 percent that of silicon, require no toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, hydrofluoric acid or hydrochloric acid to produce, require less water, and require 80 percent less energy to produce. . They’re also paper-thin, require no silicon cleaning, glass, or mounting, and are even more efficient in low-light conditions!
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