Spread tons of toxic metals and concrete on your land and call it renewable?

For twenty-seven years nearly all the heat for our house has been renewable. Sun streaming through a south-facing greenhouse into our family room and a central wood stove provide all the heat we need, even on the coldest days in Southern Arkansas.

With five acres of woods, we don’t even have to haul in wood. We cut it within feet of our wood stove. Passive solar heats the house most winter days because the sun comes out here nearly every day, even in winter

Like most folks in our area, we have been bombarded by ads touting solar arrays as the answer to high electric bills. Though we don’t have much of an electric bill, we decided to check it out anyway. All the companies we contacted wanted us to let them pour concrete into our fields and set up solar arrays. We didn’t want to cover productive fields with concrete and metal trays, so they eventually acceded to putting the arrays on our barn roof. Then we started to learn more about the solar arrays they would install.

Solar array hit by 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico

According to manufacturers, solar panels should last around 30 years before decommissioning.

Our passive solar system is still working fine after almost 30 years and it shows no reduction in efficiency. If we had a solar array, we would be needing to replace it.

When the lifespan of a solar array is over, what happens? Right now in the US, the remains go to a landfill or just hang around, covering up your land, useless. There is currently no federal standard or requirement for end-of-life management of photovoltaic panels

The solution many are looking to is recycling. Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,” said Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

Robards said nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value. Not only that, but what’s available to recycle is something of a moving target. As solar panel technology improves, manufacturers are slowly finding ways around using components that would have value to recyclers, such as copper and silver.

“So the underlying commodity value of these things keeps going down,” Robards said. The less value a recycler can extract, the less incentive there is to recycle.

At Forbes, Michael Shellenberger cites solar industry insiders who contend the solar industry produces vast quantities of hazardous waste, which are not being adequately dealt with.

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.”

Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. “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.

Recycling costs more than the economic value of the materials recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills. “The absence of valuable metals/materials produces economic losses,” wrote a team of scientists in the International Journal of Photoenergy in their study of solar panel recycling last year, Chinese and Japanese experts agree. “If a recycling plant carries out every step by the book,” a Chinese expert told The South China Morning Post, “their products can end up being more expensive than new raw materials.”

Toshiba Environmental Solutions told Nikkei Asian Review last year that, “Low demand for scrap and the high cost of employing workers to disassemble the aluminum frames and other components will make it difficult to create a profitable business”

The attitude of some solar recyclers in China appears to feed this concern. “A sales manager of a solar power recycling company,” the South China Morning News reported, “believes there could be a way to dispose of China’s solar junk, nonetheless.”

“We can sell them to Middle East… Our customers there make it very clear that they don’t want perfect or brand new panels. They just want them cheap… There, there is lots of land to install a large amount of panels to make up for their low performance. Everyone is happy with the result.”

In other words, there are firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” but instead sell panels to a secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems. In the past, communities living near electronic waste dumps in Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India have been primary e-waste destinations.

According to a 2015 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of electronic waste is illegally traded and dumped in poor nations. Writes UNEP:

[T]housands of tonnes of e-waste are falsely declared as second-hand goods and exported from developed to developing countries, including waste batteries falsely described as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors declared as metal scrap.

Unlike other forms of imported e-waste, used solar panels can enter nations legally before eventually entering e-waste streams. As the United Nation Environment Program notes, “loopholes in the current Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives allow the export of e-waste from developed to developing countries (70% of the collected WEEE ends up in unreported and largely unknown destinations).”

Maybe the solar industry will solve the recycling problem, but even if it does, the land the arrays sit on is still polluted and dotted with concrete and metals.

I’m happy with my passive solar and wood stove, no solar arrays for me.