Solar has become a front runner in this arena, with both developed and low income nations tapping into solar panels to capture and convert the sun’s rays into electricity. It has become somewhat of a spectacle, with innovative projects the world over demonstrating how the sun can redefine our daily lives if well utilised.
From the floating farm in the Maldives, the Solar Bike Path in the Netherlands, the solar powered train tunnel in Belgium and airports that run entirely on solar power, there is no end in sight for what solar energy promises. In fact, in the tiny island nation of Tokelau, located in the South Pacific Ocean, the country runs entirely on solar energy.
So entrenched has solar energy become that it is poised to be the dominant source of energy in almost all continents in the coming three decades.
But as we get excited and glamourise the wonders of sun-generated energy, a catastrophe is brewing; one that parallels the plastic waste menace.
The not-so-bright side of solar energy
Most of the solar panels, the heart of the solar energy innovation, were installed about two decades ago. The average lifespan of these panels is estimated to be approximately between 20 to 30 years. But as the world warmed up to solar energy and technologies, it never quite paid attention to how to dispose of them, or manage the waste.
Now, we are staring at a disaster. Picture this, in 2016, there were about 250,000 tonnes of solar panel waste globally, and this figure will hit 78 million tonnes in 2050, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS).
These panels contain chemicals and heavy metals that, if wrongly discarded, would be harmful to our environment and human health.
Almost all solar panel modules are made of glass, and that glass cannot be recycled without breaking the entire panel due to impurities that include lead, antimony, cadmium and plastics known to cause cancer, death and air pollution.
The best practice, therefore, has been to invest in recycling the panels. But with recycling costs being higher than the value of the materials being recovered, solar companies have opted to reuse, repurpose, dump into landfills or sell them to secondary markets.
This trend has been referenced in a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Electric Power Research Institute.
“Current technology, infrastructure, and processes associated with recycling PV modules are not optimised for cost-effective recovery of high value materials. As a result, the cost of recycling is often outweighed by cheaper, more accessible disposal options,” the report states.
Managing solar panel waste
Jude Mutua, a renewable energy expert, concurs: “Recycling of solar panels poses similar challenges associated with the old TVs due to the exorbitant cost of recycling them, the …….