(Emily Larsen, Liberty Headlines) A new analysis from Environmental Progress found that that a solar panel waste crisis may be on way.
Increased government and public support for solar panels — despite options like nuclear energy being vastly more environmentally and energy efficient — combined with a lack of panel waste processing capabilities, means that solar panel waste could threaten the environment.
Environmental Progress found that solar panels produce 300 times more waste than nuclear reactors when providing the same amount of energy. According to the analysis, countries outside of Europe don’t have the capacity to safely dispose of the amount of solar panel waste expected in the next 10 to 20 years.
“If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km),” said the analysis.
Japan’s Environment Ministry is trying to prepare for a massive rise in solar panel waste in the next 10 to 20 years, due to the Japanese government’s “feed-in-tariff” program which guarantees electricity prices generated from renewable energy.
In 2020 the estimated solar panel waste will exceed 10,000 tons. Currently Japan’s leader in solar panel recycling, Toshiba Environmental Solutions, can process 44 tons of solar panel waste per month. At that rate it will take 19 years to process 10,000 tons. By 2040, Japan’s annual solar panel waste could reach as high as 810,000 tons, or 40.5 mission solar panels.
While solar panels don’t pollute the air or water when they produce energy after they are made, solar panels do contain toxic materials and potentially hazardous fluids.
In the United States, solar panels are subject to various federal and state manufacturing regulations. But there is no national standard that requires the industry to recycle the material in solar panels, and standards on recycling solar panel materials varies from state to state.
Many solar panel companies are already voluntarily implementing systems to recycle solar panels. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition ranks and scores the top solar panel companies on how they manage their environmental impact, including a High Value Recycling score for material recovery rates. But of the 32 companies ranked in its 2015 scorecard, no company received a top score, and more than half of the companies ranked only received a 2 out of 5 for that category.
Solar panels outside of Europe end up in the larger stream of electronic waste that eventually makes its way to China. A 2013 United Nations report showed the nation is dealing with a 20 percent annual rise in domestic electronic waste, and that about 70 percent of the world’s electronic waste ended up in China. According to the Environmental Progress report, communities living near these dumps are exposed to toxic fumes when plants burn plastic to harvest metals and other valuable materials. In the case of solar panels, that means exposures to toxic materials like lead, chromium, and cadmium.
While President Donald Trump was not very supportive of solar power on the campaign, saying solar power is “very, very expensive” and “not working so good,” he recently came out in support of solar panels on the proposed US-Mexico border wall.
Meanwhile Energy Secretary Rick Perry is a vocal supporter of nuclear energy.
“If you really care about this environment that we live in — and I think the vast majority of the people in the country and the world do — then you need to be a supporter of this amazingly clean, resilient, safe, reliable source of energy,” Perry said about nuclear energy during a recent press conference at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico in May.
Under Perry’s direction, the Department of Energy is putting together a study to measure how the power grid’s reliability has been affected by the increase in renewable energy, pushed by government policies.
Perry isn’t completely discounting renewable energy. Earlier in June at an energy conference in Beijing, Perry said that there are “extraordinary opportunities to be partners to work on clean energy issues” with China, including renewable energy.