Exploring the ‘Dark Side’ of Solar Energy

March 14, 20220

Introduction

There are few things that scream ‘environmentally conscious’ as solar energy panels gleaming in the sunlight. This marvel of human engineering is a symbol of all that is green and renewable in our modern world, beset as it is on all sides by the looming dangers of climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation. However, much has been said and much more is still being said about the so called ‘dark side’ of solar power. As urgency increases to counter climate change and more and more countries adopt solar technology, governments and environmentalists have cautioned against the potential drawbacks of solar energy. Many of these downsides take the shape of chemical pollution and resource depletion. It also so happens to be that the efficiency of solar PV systems is affected by the geography where they are located. As a result, their ability to compensate for the emission of greenhouse gases varies substantially by not only geography, but also technology.

So, are the shining examples of humanity’s ingenuity built on a mound of poisoned land? Are solar panels really just as bad for the environment as fossil fuels, if only in a different way? Have we really come to the end of our search for sustainable energy, or is this just another expensive and multi-century stopgap measure? Let’s find out.

A Change in Scenery

Solar energy, like many other manufactured goods in the past few decades, have seen a shift in production sites. The manufacturing of photovoltaics has shifted from its traditional hubs in Europe, the United States and Japan to China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. With the exception of Taiwan to a degree, most of these countries typically do a terrible job of protecting not only their environment, but also their workers. Therefore, it is important to separate the deficient safeguards that these countries have from any intrinsic shortcomings in the solar industry itself. For example, no matter where petroleum is refined, it will still serve as an emitter of fossil fuels. While it is true that modern refining processes cause less pollution, internal combustion engines and other fossil-fuel based technology are inherently unhealthy for the environment. No matter of refinement will make them sustainable in the long run. Is this the case for solar energy? Or can we mitigate the potential harm that this technology causes through proper legislation and by enforcing adequate safeguards? These are the questions we will be addressing in this article.

Sunny Times for Solar Energy

It’s sunny times for solar energy all round. In spite of supply chain issues, chronic energy shortages and the rising costs of raw materials, experts suspect that the market will return to its trend of decreasing prices from 2023. Even so, the ‘solar boom’ has shown no signs of slowing meaningfully, let alone stopping altogether. Home installations are making a full rebound from the ‘COVID slump’ across Australia and the world. Analysts and governments alike are predicting healthy numbers of growth, coupled with a steady increase in solar capacity for 2022. For instance, the United States is expected to add 15.5 GW of solar energy in 2022, as opposed to the 13 GW added in 2019. Australia is expected to witness a surge of 20.56% from 2022 to 2027 in the solar energy sector. Despite the nation being hit hard by COVID restrictions, solar energy is making a strong comeback. Similarly, the government of India has set an ambitious target of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity to be installed in 2022. 100 GW of this is slated to be solar energy. Whether the Indian government will be able to deliver on this or not remains to be seen. However, if there is one thing to glean from all this, it is that solar energy has not had its heyday, and there is still massive demand, both at home and abroad, for solar energy.

Charting a Course for the Future

Industry experts have calculated that should things continue as they are, we can expect to see the solar industry quadruple in size over the next decade. The research data used to achieve this outcome does not take into consideration new regulations and legislation launched by increasingly climate conscious administrations across the world.

Pandemic Proof

The solar industry is one of the few that have weathered the pandemic in relatively good conditions. In fact, it was only after the pandemic subsided, and the global supply chain became clogged with increased commercial activities, that the industry began to feel the effects of the pandemic. For all intents and purposes, the solar PV industry has been seen as ‘pandemic proof’ by investors and customers alike. A large part of this is because of the generous subsidies that the industry has enjoyed world over. In the US, for instance, the Solar Investment Tax Credit defrays 26% of all solar expenses for residential and commercial customers. This is down from the 30% high enjoyed from 2006-2019. After 2023, the tax credit will shrivel down to a mere 10% for commercial installers and disappear altogether for residential purchases. The same is true of Australia’s own tax rebates, thought the phasing out is much more gradual. Nevertheless, buyers are scrambling to buy solar panels in America while they still can at a discounted rate. We have said it before, and we retain that the solar industry is heavily dependent on government support to thrive. Though this is not the only reason for the solar boom, it is vital for the industry to gain a footing, as solar panels are still quite expensive and downright unaffordable for the average consumer. This becomes more apparent when one sees the effects of flawed government policies vis-à-vis the solar industry. An example of this is Pakistan. The Pakistani government hyped up its support for green energy with an ambitious plan to see the south-Asian nation receive 60% of its energy through renewables by 2030. The plan, hailed as revolutionary and farsighted, has begun to unravel, as the government imposed a 20% sales tax on solar panels and electric vehicles. The Pakistani government’s plan to shift to clean energy appears dead on arrival, as the prices of solar projects have jumped 30% overnight. In a country where 43% of airborne emissions are caused by transportation, one cannot help but wonder whether the current administration’s plan for the future is naught but lip-service. To be fair, the Pakistani government has said that it plans to promote domestically produced solar panels, but if the history of the Pakistani automobile industry is any indication, this plan will not fare well at all. This goes to show just how dependent the solar industry is on good regulation practices.

Beyond Tax Breaks

Tax breaks and rebates are not the only reason that solar panels are doing so well across the world. The solar industry’s success has, in large part, been attributed to the prevalent tax subsidies across many countries of the world. However, this is not the only reason. Solar technology has improved manifold in the past decade as well, with modern panels being extremely advanced and efficient. Conversion efficiency has gone up as much as 0.5% per annum for the past decades steadily, and production costs have sharply declined. Much of this decline has been attributed to new and improved manufacturing methods. This innovation as come in successive waves, driven by the Chinese dominance of the solar market. For the front-end consumer, this has translated to significantly reduced up-front costs per KW of energy. So, if it’s all roses and sunshine, where are talks of the ‘dark side’ of solar energy coming from? That is what we are going to explore in the next section.

Growing Concerns About Solar Trash

We live in a world of constant upgrades and rapid technological innovation. The more cynical among us would say that we make goods that can last decades, and then try and replace them annually. From high-end vehicles to smartphones and laptops, there is always a newer and better version out next year. Manufacturers make a profit by convincing customers to replace expensive items on a yearly basis. The solar industry is no exception. Since modern solar panels are increasingly getting better and cheaper, companies may be tempted o ask customers to begin trading in their older solar panels for newer, better and cheaper ones. Should this happen, the sheer volume of discarded panels will very soon become an environmental hazard. Now, to be fair, this is not a widely adopted measure. In fact, we at Prosun Solar lay an emphasis high-quality, if slightly more expensive panels, precisely because they will not have to be replaced anytime soon. Nevertheless, even if everyone’s solar panels last as long as they’re supposed to (what are the chances of that?) the world is going to see a massive surge in solar waste production by the early 2030s. This is expected to pile up to 78 million tonnes by the year 2050. If we factor in widespread, early preparation, the situation becomes more dire.
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A study conducted by Harvard Business Review in 2021 found that there are three main reasons why people might want to replace their solar panels before than their 30-year lifespan is up:

  • Installation price: should the installation price drop rapidly enough; customers will be tempted to consider installing a new set of panels before their old ones retire.
  • Compensation rate: Should companies offer adequate compensation, like discounts on upgrading to newer panels, free or discounted installation or any other incentive, customers will be more likely to consider early replacement.
  • Module efficiency: This is the solar industry’s greatest strength and also a cause for environmentalists to be concerned. Solar panels are getting better and better. Should all these factors align, a customer may calculate that they can change their panels after 15 years and save more money in the long run, instead of waiting for 30 years.

If early replacements are factored in, the Harvard Business Review study finds that the amount of solar trash will be fifty times higher than anticipated. This means that instead of 78 million tonnes, the world will have to deal with 315,000 metric tonnes of waste. But that’s not all, these numbers do not take commercial solar installations into account, and only consider residential installations. Once commercial numbers are factored in, the end result may be an astronomically higher amount of solar waste.

Recycling Solar Trash

As it stands, the solar recycling industry is not prepared, not by a long shot, for the wave of solar trash tat is about to come crashing down on the international market. Even so, the incentive to invest in recycling has never been very strong in the solar industry because solar panels do not have many high-value components in them. Aside from traces of silver, they are mostly made of glass. Investments in recycling is further disincentivised by the long lifespan of solar panels. As a result, the solar production boom has left the recycling industry in the dust. This is further compounded by the fact that recycling solar panels is far more expensive ($20-30 per panel) than just sending them to a landfill ($1-2 per panel).

Dealing with Solar Waste

The good news is that it is not all doom and gloom. The solar waste is not nearly as unmanageable as carbon pollution. In fact, there are examples of effective legislation in place across Europe to get ahead of solar trash. Following these examples, we can address this problem before it even becomes an issue. The solar industry is more than able to mitigate, if not eliminate, many of the damaging side effects of solar waste disposal. To top it all off, we have decades to prepare. This represents a billion-dollar opportunity to recapture valuable and non-renewable materials as much as it does a dire threat to the environment.

Following Europe’s Lead: The WEEE Directive

In light of the rapidly growing electronic waste (otherwise known as waste electrical and electronic equipment: WEEE) across Europe led the continent’s legislatives to enforce the WEEE Directive. Electronic waste is one of Europe’s largest and fastest growing streams of waste. This is not only going to increase once solar panels become more mainstream, but the plan to phase out petrol vehicles in favour of electric ones is going to contribute immensely to e-waste. The WEEE aims to nip this in the bud and control the flow of electronic waste through proper management and an emphasis on responsibility. This means that there is no ambiguity in Europe about who is responsible for managing e-waste.

Goals of the WEEE Directive

E-waste includes any sort of electrical product, including computers, mobile phones, solar panels, fridges etc., that have reached the end of their lifecycle. This waste is challenging to deal with because:

  1. It involves a plethora of complex materials that have to be recycled.
  2. Some of these materials are hazardous.
  3. Improper disposal can cause health hazards.
  4. Modern electronics are not only expensive, but they make use of rare materials that can be reused if recycled properly.

The WEEE Directive aims to:

  • Enhance the sustainability of the production and consumption of electronic resources.
  • Efficiently manage resources available.
  • Contribute to the creation of a sustainable and circular economy.

How it Works

The onus of recycling is placed squarely on the shoulders of the manufacturers, in the WEEE Directive. It works by setting targets for producers to collect, recover and recycle electrical waste across Europe. When the items become waste, the producers are responsible for their recovery and reuse. This naturally tends to increase the price of these items a bit, but ask yourself this: can you really put a price on sustainability? Ad in case you were wondering, no, the price increase is not nearly enough to put off people from buying expensive laptops, phones, TVs and fridges. With a plethora of financing options available, there is no reason to assume that this will be any different for solar PV systems.

How Australia Does It:

The solar business in Australia are one of the nation’s fastest growing industries. One in five Australians ow uses solar panels in some way to cover their bills. However, the solar industry is still young and relatively new. There is a lot we have not taken into account, and a lot that will become clear only with the passage of time, given that solar technology is still evolving and innovations are aplenty. Solar panels are designed to last over thirty years, but many faulty panels get replaced within six years of their installation date. And with new and improved panels always just around the corner, there is major incentive to replace older panels with newer ones.

First among the known unknowns is dealing with solar waste. Wat to do when these massive panels complete their life cycles and become waste? The problem became very real for Australia in 2018, when China stopped purchasing recyclable waste from Australia. Fortunately, this issue has not been left unattended.

No Levies on the Manufacturer

Unlike Europe, Australia does not levy taxes or additional costs on the manufacturers towards end of life recycling. So, the onus of disposal cost falls on the installer (in the case of an upgrade) or the user (if they’re disposing of the panels themselves).

Victoria’s Ban on E-Waste

In 2019, Australia banned e-waste in landfills altogether. The state now offers alternative drop-off points for e-waste recycling. From these points, the waste is transported to designated recycling facilities.

Expanding Recycling in Australia

While e-waste recycling facilities in Australia are limited, there is reason to believe they will increase in the future. The NSW government began inviting “expressions of interest’ in 2021 for an AUD10 million funding grant for trial projects that can increase the collection and reuse of solar components like panels and battery storage systems. In a similar vein, LNP proposed the construction of a solar recycling facility in South East Queensland.

What Parts of Solar Panels Can Be Recycled?

Solar panels are made up of glass, aluminium frames and brackets, semiconductors, crystalline silicon, plastics and electric junctions. All these components and materials can be recycled through various processes. The most valuable parts of a solar panels are aluminium frames and these are also the easiest to recycle. 80% of a solar panel’s construction involves crystalline silicon, which is a recyclable and reusable material. Inverters can be an excellent source of scrap metals as well. In short: almost every component of solar panels can be recycled, making them very environmentally friendly in the long run.

The Future of Solar Recycling

It should be clear by now that the solar trash wave is a very avoidable problem. A simple glance at all the recyclable components of solar panels will sow us that there is great incentive to reuse materials and create a circular economy. The cost is a small investment in recycling, that will save us all a great deal of trouble in the future.  But herein lies the problem. Humanity has not always proven to be the most thoughtful of species, in spite of the name Sapiens (wise) that we have so gleefully adorned ourselves with. Our behaviour can be unpredictable at best and downright tyrannical at worst. Our insistence on short term gains can prove to be the source of great friction between our lifestyles and the natural order. It has been conclusively established by research and practice that solar waste is very manageable. The only question is: will it be managed in a proper and timely fashion? In a market that is increasingly dominated by Chinese suppliers, this seems more and more unlikely. China is not exactly known for its environmentally conscious policies. Currently they are flooding the market with exceptionally good solar panels, and while this is commendable, we need to enact legislation today that will mitigate the effects of the first wave of solar trash. Otherwise, we will all be left to clean up the mess Chinese producers have left behind.

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