From the Article
Solar panel installations hit a total 629 GW last year–an increase of 12 percent from 2018. It was also a lot—really a lot—of panels. And in a few years, these panels could become a major waste management headache.
Solar panels vary in size and capacity, but here is an example of the relation between size—and number—and capacity. A solar power installation with a capacity of just 5 kW, for instance, could be made up of 20 panels, each with a capacity of 250 W or 16 panels, each with a capacity of 300 W. So, it takes 16 to 20 panels for a 5-kW installation.
One gigawatt of power equals one million kilowatts. If we take the larger-size, smaller-number panel installation from above, it would need 3.2 panels per kW of capacity. Now multiply this by the global solar capacity added just last year, which was 114.9 GW. We are talking about tens of millions of panels added last year alone. And there are millions more in operation, some of them nearing the end of their useful life.
In a recent study, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory warned that by the end of this decade, some 8 million tons of solar panel waste could find their way into landfills across the world. By 2025, this could rise to as much as 80 million tons. This is up from just 250,000 tons in 2016, so if anyone needed another proof of how fast solar has grown, they need look no further.
Some say the solar panel waste is not particularly harmful. The author of this article in Australia’s Renew Economy, for instance, argues that “The typical panel working life is 30 years and so just 2 square metres of panel will retire each year per person, weighing 20 kg, almost all of which is suitable for recycling. This is 1% of annual solid waste generated per person and one part in a thousand of the weight of Australian annual carbon dioxide emissions per person. For comparison, a car typically weighs 1500 kg and lasts for 10 years, thus generating 150 kg of waste per year on average.”
Andrew Blakers also notes that the majority of a solar panel is glass, a little silicon, which is non-toxic, and “small amounts of copper, silver, aluminium and very small amounts of solder.”
The International Energy Agency also says that the most popular solar panels in the world carry little risk for human health. But not all agree.
In a 2018 article for Forbes, environmental activist Michael Schellenberg quoted solar industry insiders and researchers as saying that solar panel waste contains toxic elements that can leak into the ground if the panels are disposed of in landfills. What’s more, it is because of these toxic elements—including cadmium, lead, and antimony—that the recycling of solar panels presents a challenge. The challenge lies in the fact that although 90 percent of a panel is glass, it cannot simply be recycled like any other glass because of the impurities.