SOLAR energy is clean and green, we are told all the time by one and all. What we don’t hear at all is the fact that solar energy can be as mean as it is said to be green. Well, truth can be brutal.
Although solar energy is an effective alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting sources, the panels used to produce solar energy contain hazardous substances. The average lifespan of a solar panel is about 20 years, but high temperatures can accelerate the aging process for solar cells. Furthermore, snow, dust and natural calamities, like tornadoes, earthquakes, etc., can cause material fatigue on the surface as well.
In the internal electric circuits, there is gradual reduction in the panel’s power output. Solar panels generate 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. They also contain lead, cadmium and other toxic, even carcinogenic, chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel.
Worse, rainwater can wash many of these toxics out of the fragments of the solar modules over time. Another concern is the vast increase in the use of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) in constructing the solar panels.
The UN Panel on Climate Change deems NF3 to be 17,200 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This means that even relatively minor quantities can have a major impact.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 estimated that there was about 250,000 tonnes of solar panel waste in the world at the end of that year. IRENA projected that this amount could reach 78 million tonnes by 2050. Today, recycling costs more than the economic value of the material recovered, which is why most solar panels end up in landfills.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is already a major problem worldwide, especially in the developing countries, like Pakistan, which receive e-waste because workers dismantle the panels, and other such e-waste stuff, to recover valuable materials without proper safety equipment. Exposure to hazardous substances in the e-waste affects their health.
The low demand of scrap and the high cost of employing workers to disassemble the aluminum frames and other components make it difficult to create a profitable business unless recycling companies charge several times more than the set target.
The dangers and hazards of toxins in photovoltaic modules appear particularly large in Pakistan where there is no orderly waste management system in place.
The e-waste shipments reaching Pakistan should be more strictly monitored and there is a dire need for imposing a fee to cover the cost of recycling or long-term management. Such a recycling and waste management fund could help address our e-waste problems while supporting the development of a new, high-tech industry in recycling solar panels.
Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2020