Image source: Author's collection
The Los Angeles Times reports that we may be trading one evil for another with all of the potential waste generated from the life-cycle of a solar panel. While maybe not as harmful as mountaintop removal from coal or emissions emitted from the millions of cars on the road, the generation of electricity from solar does have its own dark side.Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacture of the cells and, just like many other electronics, the waste metals not used in production also present their own disposal problems, mercury and chromium being two of the top problem-makers. We've also reported before that the installation of solar panels also includes toxic materials like the PVC and glues used in the conduit.
How Do We Know There is a Problem?
By looking at Asia, one of the leaders in solar applications, we see an area that is starting to have disposal problems from the use of all of the toxins during manufacture. In addition, the electronics industry generated 2.6 million tons of waste in 2005, most of which was ditched in landfills or incinerators, or shipped to developing nations for disposal. Meaning that either way it leached into groundwater, harmed the air or directly harmed people during the dismantling.
We're already aware that there might be a problem and solar currently only makes up 1% of the US electricity market. We've identified the problem early on in the game so we can establish recycling plans, proper disposal methods, and design alternative (better) materials to use in the panels (more green jobs?). Plus, panels are designed to last upwards of 25 years (or more), unless they are preemptively cracked before they wear out, meaning that we have some time to figure out the best disposal plans.
Several groups are already on the cause, developing plans and programs for recycling. PV Cycle, a European company, will collect and recycle the panels. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is championing the cause to make sure that solar does not go the way of electronics in the past. First Solar Inc., in the US, has a cradle to grave plan to take back all panels from commercial customers at the end of their life. In addition, First Solar has developed an independent trust to ensure that panels will still be recycled even if the company goes under before the panels do.: Los Angeles Times
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