What occurs to solar panels after 25 years?
The world is currently in the midst of a major shift in power from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Solar panels, which were once the domain of the rich and the extremely environmentally conscious people, have made their way towards a more sustainable future in recent years. Climate change has driven change, and technological advances have made these solutions more affordable, efficient and last longer than ever.
But they are durable. What will happen in 25 years when two million Australian households are equipped with PV systems as well as countless businesses, public spaces and solar parks? Will we face yet another environmental crisis caused by the huge volume of panels on the scrap heap?
Time is on our side, but the problem is massive
We don’t see a major problem with solar panel waste until between 2040 and 2050 – but when the problem occurs it can be enormous. It is estimated that we will see more than 60 million tons of waste from old modules, which is more than 30 times the volume of waste caused by single-use water bottles in the United States.
Then there is the cost. The materials used to make these products are worth over $ 16 billion, and there are certain components that are toxic. Hence, it is not advisable to land them in a landfill.
What are solar panels made of?
There is some good news here. The panels are made of silicon wafers – AKA sand. Silicon is non-toxic and fully recyclable, which means that this component is not a problem. Another big part of these panels is glass – another tick as this is also highly recyclable. There’s iron and aluminum in it too – completely reusable.
This leaves only a small amount of lead, chromium and barium, which are toxic and can leak out of old modules. Most of the components in today’s designs can be recycled, which is great news. Strategies must be developed for these toxic elements, but the problem is not as bad as initially feared.
There are polymers, copper, silver paste, and all kinds of other materials that can be reused and recycled. We can currently recycle around 90 percent of all materials in a single panel. That’s not to say that there aren’t any problems – there are still some things that we need to work on.
It is important not to gloss over the dangerous substances and we need to develop safe ways to dispose of them in the future as we cannot just throw them into landfills. The cost of recycling is also an issue, which means there are some people and industries out there that are throwing them away instead of bothering to recycle them. The recycling process must become simpler and cheaper in the coming years.