Solar Panel Waste: the Other Side of Clean Energy

A large number of solar panels installed in the early 2000s are approaching the end of their life cycle, which has brought a serious problem to the solar industry. The current treatment methods of solar panels are far from meeting the requirements of environmental protection.


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In theory, solar energy is more promising than ever before. Solar cells are becoming easier and cheaper to produce. However, there are some rarely discussed questions about solar photovoltaics: whether their production and waste products are more pollutants than the fossil fuels they intend to replace is still a question that should be answered.

Manufacturing solar panels usually require the use of several toxic chemicals. The service life of solar panels is about 20 to 30 years. Since the first large-scale installation in the early 2000s, a large number of solar panels have reached the end of their service life. When solar panels are stacked in the garbage, the toxic metals contained in them will seep into the environment. If it enters groundwater, it may cause harm to public health.

Silicon in photovoltaic modules should be recyclable, but metals such as cadmium and lead are added to improve the electrical efficiency of solar cells. This makes it difficult to recycle solar cells because extracting harmful metals requires considerable energy input. The cost of recycling solar panels is often higher than the cost of producing solar panels. Most solar photovoltaic recycling plants only extract valuable silver and copper from batteries, and then burn contaminated glass and plastic shells in furnaces. Because this process is expensive and time-consuming, it is more convenient to throw the waste solar panels into landfills or export them to third-world countries.

Fortunately, effective recycling methods do exist. The facilities of first solar, the largest solar energy company in the United States, can extract 90% of the materials in solar panels, and then recycle them to make new solar panels or electronic products. Veolia, a French company, opened its first plant in Europe that specializes in recycling solar cells. At present, China and the United States are the largest users of solar panels, but only Europe has taken measures to require manufacturers to be responsible for their photovoltaic waste. The EU requires solar energy companies to collect and recycle solar panels, and the recovery cost is included in the sales price. In this way, the waste of solar panels and the impact on the environment are minimized, and consumers only need to pay a little more for solar panels.

Mandatory recycling is not the only way to make solar energy more environmentally friendly. Some technology start-ups are looking for ways to make the actual production process cleaner. Scientists are exploring new ways to purify silicon for solar cells, or are testing low-grade silicon solar cells. A recent discovery in solar technology may eliminate the use of silicon by using a material called perovskite. Perovskite solar cells are not silicon crystals but are made of metal crystals, usually, lead. The raw materials and synthesis of perovskite cells are much cheaper than the high-purity silicon required for traditional solar panels.

There are only a few methods to manufacture silicon solar cells, but there are many methods to manufacture perovskite cells, which can produce unique solar panels for different applications. The most promising thing is that perovskite batteries are easier to manufacture and more environmentally friendly, and their efficiency has been comparable to that of silicon batteries. And don't worry about the lead content. Perovskite batteries based on non-toxic metals such as tin or germanium are approaching the efficiency of lead batteries.

With the transformation of society from fossil fuels to energy, solar energy will become an important part of our future. Therefore, we can predict that the output of solar panels will increase in the next few decades, and there may be a large amount of hazardous waste. Although solar energy as renewable energy has great prospects, society must also face the pollution problem it brings, otherwise, the use of light energy may make our situation darker than before.

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