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If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste?

May 26, 2018

By Paul Homewood


From Forbes, the story of a looming environmental problem:


The last few years have seen growing concern over what happens to solar panels at the end of their life. Consider the following statements:

  • The problem of solar panel disposal “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment” because it “is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.”
  • “The reality is that there is a problem now, and it’s only going to get larger, expanding as rapidly as the PV industry expanded 10 years ago.”
  • “Contrary to previous assumptions, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be almost completely washed out of the fragments of solar modules over a period of several months, for example by rainwater.”

    Were these statements made by the right-wing Heritage Foundation? Koch-funded global warming deniers? The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal?

    None of the above. Rather, the quotes come from a senior Chinese solar official, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. solar industry, and research scientists with the German Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics.

    With few environmental journalists willing to report on much of anything other than the good news about renewables, it’s been left to environmental scientists and solar industry leaders to raise the alarm.

    “I’ve been working in solar since 1976 and that’s part of my guilt,” the veteran solar developer told Solar Power World last year. “I’ve been involved with millions of solar panels going into the field, and now they’re getting old.”

    The Trouble With Solar Waste

    The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated there was about 250,000 metric tonnes of solar panel waste in the world at the end of that year. IRENA projected that this amount could reach 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.

    Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. For this reason, the whole solar panel is considered hazardous by many experts and governments, including the state of California, which is trying to prevent the flow of old solar panels to landfills.

    “Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass,” notes San Jose State environmental studies professor Dustin Mulvaney. “However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.”

    Researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) undertook a study for U.S. solar-owning utilities to plan for end-of-life and concluded that solar panel “disposal in “regular landfills [is] not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil” and so “disposal is potentially a major issue.”

    The fact that cadmium can be washed out of solar modules by rainwater is increasingly a concern for local environmentalists like the Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake in Virginia, where a 6,350 acre solar farm to partly power Microsoft data centers is being proposed.

    “We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” Sean Fogarty of the group told me. “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.” 

    There is real-world precedent for this concern. A tornado in 2015 broke 200,000 solar modules at southern California solar farm Desert Sunlight.

    "Any modules that were broken into small bits of glass had to be swept from the ground," Mulvaney explained, "so lots of rocks and dirt got mixed in that would not work in recycling plants that are designed to take modules. These were the cadmium-based modules that failed [hazardous] waste tests, so were treated at a [hazardous] waste facility. But about 70 percent of the modules were actually sent to recycling, and the recycled metals are in new panels today."

    Full story here.

    1. May 26, 2018 10:28 am

      Yet another unintended consequence that the decision-makers were warned about by scientists and engineers. But when politicians rely on the Greenblob for advice about “clean” energy, this consequence is what you expect. It’s just another waste problem to add to that of wind turbine blades.

      • May 26, 2018 12:09 pm

        Maybe it is high time to label it properly as an IGNORED consequence.

        • Sheri permalink
          May 26, 2018 1:32 pm

          I like the term. I may borrow it.

      • 4 Eyes permalink
        May 27, 2018 11:44 am

        And they’ll want subsidies to process the waste

    2. swan101 permalink
      May 26, 2018 10:31 am

      Reblogged this on UPPER SONACHAN WIND FARM and commented:
      Yet another example of lack of research into constituents of ‘renewable’technologies….this revelation adds to growing and horrifying list of damage being done now and to come. So sad for those genuinely persuaded that they were helping the environment…. serious lessons must be learned about believing industry and government hype.

    3. May 26, 2018 10:45 am

      Waste not therefore want not.

    4. Jeff permalink
      May 26, 2018 10:56 am

      They can be (and are) recycled and they have a typical lifespan of 20 years.
      They are no worse than many other industrial products we use in this respect.

      • Charles Wardrop, permalink
        May 26, 2018 11:39 am

        During its lifespan, however long or short, the solar panel depends on sunshine, which we sometimes have in the UK, but not all that often.

        • Jeff permalink
          May 26, 2018 11:46 am

          I can see that solar panels may not be cost effective in the UK.
          And I don’t think they should be given any subsidies.
          But I don’t think their so called “toxic waste” is a legitimate reason not to use them.
          I think they would be easier to recycle than a TV, computer or fridge.

        • Sheri permalink
          May 26, 2018 1:41 pm

          Jeff: Funny, we used the term for CFLs, freon, etc. There are literally hundreds of items labeled toxic waste. Those who follow the rules take them to the hazardous waste facility. The rest toss used frigs and freezers in the desert or forest, dump insecticide down the storm sewer or some place isolated, toss batteries in ditches. Hint: The irresponsible outnumber the responsible.

          California will undoubtedly label these hazardous. Then, they will be dumped in ditches and so forth. At that point, a new government agency will formed and the panels gathered, another government funded recycling center built, employees hired and the trash hauled by diesel truck to the recycling center ran on natural gas. All in all, a really great plan. If you’re out to make money for nothing productive and grow the government. If you want real energy, very bad plan.

      • Richard williams permalink
        May 26, 2018 2:51 pm

        Totally agree with you. In fact. Aren’t they mainly made from recycleable metal. Ie aluminium frame and fixing brackets. Silver wire inside. Copper wires from the panel to the main rectifier.

    5. May 26, 2018 11:49 am

      Reblogged this on Climatism.

    6. May 26, 2018 12:11 pm

      Not to mention the problems with producing and then dealing with batteries such as those used in the little putt-putts. Tesla, anyone?

    7. Broadlands permalink
      May 26, 2018 12:27 pm

      Personal and local solar panel energy is one thing, but to require them (along with worn-out wind turbines), as part of the hopeless plan to eliminate the carbon energy that built our global standards of living is beyond stupid, bordering on irresponsible policy making.

    8. May 26, 2018 12:47 pm

      Reblogged this on Wolsten and commented:
      Solar panels not so green, who would have thunk it?

    9. Saighdear permalink
      May 26, 2018 12:49 pm

      This is a COMMENT so no time to do the further research: but Life’s experience tells me we have this problem with some plastics, Glass Fibres, Car bodies as in the Trabby, Shiny Chrome, and so on. If the Product ” suits” it’ll be allowed…….

      • Sheri permalink
        May 26, 2018 1:44 pm

        If it makes money and the greens can exploit it to condemn capitalism, it will be not only allowed but encouraged. No matter the damage done.

    10. May 26, 2018 1:56 pm

      Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

    11. Chilli permalink
      May 26, 2018 9:52 pm

      I’d like to believe this since I am opposed to solar subsidy farming on economic grounds – however it sounds like more of the same green shakedown alarmist scaremongering that saddled us with the panels in the first place. Solar panels have a relatively simple contruction and so should be relatively easy to recycle.

    12. Green Sand permalink
      May 26, 2018 10:03 pm

      Sh*t about to hit the fan? Provided there is enough energy to spin the fan?

      ‘Energy firms on the brink of collapse, reveals report

      “Half of Britain’s energy suppliers face an existential risk after the “Beast from the East” tore through the balance sheets of the industry’s small players.

      Thousands of energy customers could be left in limbo due to a high risk that around 10 of the most fragile suppliers are on the brink of going under.

      Many hundreds of thousands more bill payers face the risk of sudden ­energy tariff hikes because almost 40 suppliers may be forced to squeeze their customers to survive.

      The startling strain endured by the industry in the wake of the volatile winter energy market is laid bare in leaked proprietary data compiled by one of the City’s top analytics firms, Dun and Bradstreet…..”

      But this can’t be, it can only get warmer! Muppets, scientifcally illiterate muppets! Won’t hurt them but it will costs us!

      • Athelstan permalink
        May 27, 2018 12:05 am

        that’s the beauty of the great green scam, all the profits and superdooper bonuses are up front and no downside, coz, the consumer bears the costs – of solar panel clean ups birdmincer deconstruciton and removal and if there are any cocks ups (if? ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!!!!) see above.

        • dave permalink
          May 27, 2018 7:37 am

          I think the business report is about the “virtual firms,” whom a customer can choose as “his supplier.” They were always unlikely players, as they do not have more trading expertise than the big firms. Their spiel actually contains enough information for anyone – with nous – to realize that they do not have much of a raison d’etre.

          Meanwhile, it is still snowing in Greenland. For the second year in a row, the accumulation has been above average. I blame Global Warming. It is about time for the BBC to wake-up, and report this “worrying trend.”

        • Athelstan permalink
          May 27, 2018 1:06 pm

          bbc reporting on Greenland’s snow and cold………..whatever next? Some one! and NOW! call for the penguins…..

          Er wrong continent sonny!

          Puffins anybody?

    13. May 26, 2018 10:57 pm

      Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals


      • Ben Vorlich permalink
        May 27, 2018 9:02 am

        Lead from Roman times detectable in Greenland ice, elevated Lead levels from petrol measurable in urban gardens and allotments. Lead removed from petrol and paint for health reasons. It is much more expensive to remove lead and other toxic material than it is to put it in the first place. As Sheri points out in a comment above when it becomes expensive to dispose of something the majority of people will use the cheapest option which leads to the UK’s epidemic of fly tipping. It’s not surprise to me, I don’t know about anyone else, that when you start charging and fining people to dispose of waste and rubbish it ends up being dumped on an industrial scale. Leading to greater costs and more pollution.

        Solar PV with unreusable glass (“Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass,” notes San Jose State environmental studies professor Dustin Mulvaney. “However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.”) Heavy metal pollutants and other problems, are not a prime candidate for recycling and therefore a problem.

    14. Athelstan permalink
      May 27, 2018 12:01 am

      Only green fluffy bunnies think PV panels are green but then, they are, so bloody green aren’t they?

    15. May 27, 2018 10:00 am

      See WUWT 2017/06/29 : Waste From Solar Panels: 300 Times That of Nuclear Power by David Middleton
      based on : Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis? June 28, 2017 by Mark Nelson

    16. May 27, 2018 10:06 am

      A solar PR story is in today’s Times Scotland
      Sunny Scotland set for Highlands solar farm

      See also Biomass: another renewables plan that’s gone up in smoke by dominic lawson
      Subsidies for burning biomass — better known as wood — never made sense
      (He backs Ridley and sticks it to Drax)

      “The government will conduct a cross-departmental review into the role of biomass in future policy for low carbon energy and heat, focusing on the air quality impacts.” But why ever has it taken so long?

      • May 27, 2018 11:10 pm

        Interesting this project is claimed to be “POST SUBSIDY”
        …. and 5.24p/KWh mentioned
        Is there a trick there ? I bet there are other payments
        But don’t be fooled it IS PUTTING the price of electricity up.

        You can’t compare : On-demand power with intermittent power like solar/wind.
        They are different things ..on demand power is much more useful.
        The more intermittent power you add to a grid the more inefficient it becomes and the more expensive the overall retail cost is

    17. May 27, 2018 10:07 am

      See this wackiness “Warming UK seas may spell end of wetsuits” by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor The Sunday Times

      “We expect 3C-4C increases in sea temperatures by the 2080s around the southern UK, from Yorkshire down through the Channel and up to south Wales,”
      said Richard Wood, head of oceans and dangerous climate change research at the Met Office.
      “If you went to the beach in summer you could stay in the water for longer and often not need a wetsuit.
      Even the northern UK will see sea temperature rises of 2C-3C.”

      From the same people that were telling you 5 minutes ago that the Gulfstream would be turned off.

      • A C Osborn permalink
        May 27, 2018 11:12 am

        He obviously has no concept of the amount of energy required to raise sea temperatures by that much.

      • Athelstan permalink
        May 27, 2018 7:34 pm

        You’d be better off asking the local tesco shelf stacker about man made globull warbling, he would probably know far more than jonty leake ever did and on aught else you’d care to mention.

    18. usurbrain permalink
      May 27, 2018 1:36 pm

      For more than fifteen years I have been telling anyone that would listen of this problem. Posting this on any blog that supposedly supports the environment or sustainable is met with disdain, deletion and blocking.
      Wise up true environmentalists.

      • Athelstan permalink
        May 27, 2018 7:58 pm

        Many on here knew it, much longer than 15 years ago because some here are genuinely concerned scientists or many have science based degrees, and thus, you can work it out and the other inconvenient fact that, to produce polycrystalline silicon involves a vast amount of energy required – I bet Greenpiss never told you that either.

        All of it concerning the ‘benefits’ of PV cells is negated by the industrial processes needed for their production, costs of installation et bloody cetera and dubious lifetimes of ‘efficiency’ and eventual disposal – they ain’t worth spit…..PVs they are about as useful as rocking horse shit. They may have some minor value in Space technology but not on the terrestrial plane.

    19. Russell Taylor permalink
      May 28, 2018 10:51 am

      More inconvenient truth for the AGW con merchants!

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