Solar energy has been touted, and rightly so, as a way to reduce carbon emissions, along with American and global reliance on fossil energy. Solar panels create clean energy that doesn’t contribute to air pollution, and combats climate change all at the same time.
Solar energy is produced year-round, and even on the cloudiest day. They can be installed virtually anywhere, and the energy can be stored in batteries for use at night. The energy can be used anywhere electricity can; for heating water, powering residential and commercial structures, and even to power automobiles.
While the technology and design elements are rapidly improving, there are very serious concerns about solar energy, or more accurately, the technology behind solar energy. While solar energy is sustainable, solar panels are not.
As the ostensible 30-year shelf life of the earliest iterations of solar panel technology begins to enter the end of their viable life, the question where and how to responsibly dispose of them looms large. By 2035 there will be between 80 and 100 million tons of waste in the form of millions of solar panels that have been replaced, or otherwise decommissioned worldwide, and they all must go somewhere.
The History of The Solar Panel
The concept of harnessing solar energy isn’t a new one. Using sunlight to signal across long distances, and lighting fires for cooking, cleaning, and bathing, dates back as far as the 7th century B.C. The ancient Greeks used mirrors to magnify solar rays to light torches. Throughout the centuries, a variety of inventive minds found ways to use the rays of the sun to ease the labor on a variety of chores.
So, the idea of harnessing the power of the sun has a long and storied history. The solar cell, which was the precursor of the modern-day solar panel, is credited by some as having been invented by French physicist Edmond Bequerel. In 1839 he is said to have discovered the photovoltaic effect, or the production of voltage through exposure to light.
The idea was built upon and expanded until the first iteration of the solar panel was invented by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson, who created the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in 1954. This is thought of by many to be the first example of solar technology that could be used as an energy source. It was oversized and inefficient, but it marked the start of solar cell technology as a viable source of power that eventually saw applications in space and military technology.
Solar Energy – A Solution to America’s Energy Crunch
In the 1970s, during an oil shortage that clearly underscored America’s unhealthy dependence on foreign energy. Coupled with soaring inflation, it was a one-two punch that had the American economy reeling, and the search for alternative energy sources heating up.
Solar panel technology enjoyed a huge boost in visibility and popularity after President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House to make a statement about America’s willingness to embrace solar and other forms of clean energy.
The statement worked, and the technology saw an explosion of innovation and widespread consumer application as solar energy began to power everything from calculators to wristwatches and radios throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 2000s solar panels technology for residential use had advanced and become affordable to the middle class, with the price dropping about 10% per year since the 1980s, until they became commonplace by 2010 with an efficiency of about 80%.
Consumer Grade Solar Tech – A Environmental Bill That Has Come Due
The success of widespread consumer embrace of solar panel technology meant widespread distribution of the product, as budget minded homeowners talked to their roofing contractors, and forward-thinking entrepreneurs rushed to get a piece of what was a $100 million dollar a year industry by 2010.
And this is what puts us in the precarious situation the world finds itself in today. By 2018, the United State alone was generating a staggering amount of solar energy, to the tune of about 70 terawatt hours as solar energy was used for, among other things, the heating and hot water needs of the public. This behavior was echoed throughout the world as solar energy was adopted by countless nations seeking sustainable energy solutions.
Solar technology is surely useful to America and the world as a partial answer to the environmental and economic questions posed by the ongoing crisis of energy production in relation to the impact of man-made climate change.
Unfortunately, the technology of solar panel manufacturing, while impressive, is no more environmentally friendly than any other heavily manufactured product, and earlier iterations of solar panel tech are now reaching the outer limits of their useful life and pose a question that must be answered. What to do with the nearly 100 million tons of decommissioned solar panels worldwide that need to be disposed of?
What Are Solar Panels Made Of?
Most manufactured products are not particularly environmentally friendly, and solar panels are no exception. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of materials that comprise the bulk of solar panel construction over the last ten to twenty years are fully recyclable.
The majority of a crystalline silicon photovoltaic module, or solar power panel, is glass, as much as 75%. Resin material, aluminum, silicon and copper make up the bulk of the rest of the product, and most of these are recyclable materials.
This sounds like good news, but there has not been a great deal of investment in solar panel recycling as an industry. Currently Europe is the only part of the developed world that has established a definitive framework for supporting a viable PV module recycling enterprise.
Despite the fact that the ten percent of solar panel materials that cannot be recycled represent a substantial risk to the environment when the relatively small amounts of existing toxic metals like mercury and cadmium leach into the soil and groundwater, there is very little interest in PV module recycling as a business model unless mandated by federal or state authorities.
The axiom “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” might be the key to establishing a viable solar panel recycling industry in America. Electric vehicles are a quickly growing trend in America, and the raw materials and processing necessary to create the onboard electric batteries is in some ways very similar to what goes into creating solar energy panels and breaking down these two carbon footprint- reducing devices might create a viable industry and create millions of jobs.
Additionally, there are several car manufacturers that are researching the viability of battery grade silicon for use in electric vehicle applications. Given the prevalence of silicon in solar panel recycling, this combination of resources under one industrial umbrella seems a match made in heaven.
Investment in Solar Panel Recycling Technology – the Sooner the Better
There is still a bit of time before the proliferation of obsolete solar panels becomes a crisis, but the technology is a niche market waiting to be filled by visionary investors. While there are groups pushing for more mandating of solar panel waste at the federal level, there is a fervent need for private sector investment in this technology.
We urge private sector interests to examine the viability and the necessity of solar panel recycling technology, and to take the lead in establishing cutting edge technologies to address the issue today, and for a better, more sustainable tomorrow.
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