Solar's E-Waste Problem

Solar's E-Waste Problem

Solar might be a “clean energy” source, but it’s pretty far from spotless – especially at the end of its lifecycle. And with photovoltaics dominating the market (and global legislation that favors alternative energy), its recycling snafu is a toxic time bomb.

Forbes poses the rhetorical question “If Solar Panels Are So Clean, Why Do They Produce So Much Toxic Waste?” The issue is the alarming amount of cadmium in the average panel – last summer, we highlighted this fun little substance, which causes metal fume fever, chemical pneumonitis, pulmonary edema, cancer and death.

Oh, and there’s a ton of it, on your rooftop, in labs, and in landfills. The latter is especially worrisome – according to scientists with the German Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics, pollutants such as lead or carcinogenic cadmium can be washed out of solar panels by rainwater, making photovoltaic disposal extremely problematic.

Back in 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) pegged the amount of solar panel waste at 250,000 metric tonnes, and by 2050, that number could balloon up to 78 million metric tonnes. It’s no wonder that a senior Chinese solar official claimed the problem of solar panel disposal “will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment.”

And solar isn’t slowing down. Quite the contrary – in the U.S., alone, solar panel installation is a booming, $28 billion industry, and imports of silicon photovoltaic cells surged nearly 500 percent between 2012 and 2016. The China tariffs put a dent in this industry, but the momentum appears to be unstoppable, with over 2 million solar system installations and cumulative deployment set to reach 100 GW by 2021.

That’s a frightening amount of toxic material. And if solar is the fastest-growing energy source, then photovoltaic e-waste could be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.