Remember when flat screens produced mountains of destroyed CRT monitors? It could be worse.

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The boom in solar energy is about to trigger a “tsunami” of non-recyclable waste as consumers trade in their obsolete solar panels for better ones, according to a new study from the University of Calgary.

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“Simply put, we can expect a lot more solar panel waste over the next decade than we are prepared for,” wrote a team led by Serasu Duran, Calgary-based supply chain researcher in a pre-publication paper.

The study – which attempted to estimate the gross tonnage of solar panels expected to go to landfill in the coming years – warned that if the solar industry did not address its waste problem, “we may soon be faced with to the dark side of renewable energies. “

While hydropower remains by far the largest source of renewable energy in Canada, solar capacity has skyrocketed in recent years. Driven largely by government incentives, at the end of 2019 Canada had 3,310 MW of solar panels compared to just 221 MW in 2010, an increase of 1,500%. If the sun is shining, all of these panels are technically equivalent in capacity to the Pickering nuclear power plant in Ontario.

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However, solar panels have a short lifespan and are particularly poorly suited for recycling. They contain very little salvageable material and, as bulky glass sheets, are expensive to transport to a recycling facility.

In this 2019 photo, German Solar's Dennis German talks about the state of solar power at West Five parking lot in London, Ont, where cars are shielded from the sun by solar panels.
In this 2019 photo, German Solar’s Dennis German talks about the state of solar power at West Five parking lot in London, Ont, where cars are shielded from the sun by solar panels. Photo by Mike Hensen / The London Free Press / Postmedia Network

“To our knowledge, there is no consensus regarding an efficient recycling technology for more than 90% of glass panels. There is also no set regulation on a large scale, ”Duran told the National Post. “

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) sounded the alarm on solar waste in 2016, warning that by 2050 the world should find a way to manage up to 78 million tonnes of obsolete solar infrastructure . For context, New York City, one of the most waste-producing cities on the planet, produces only 14 million tonnes of waste each year.

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Still, Duran’s team sees the IREA number as a vast underestimate, as it assumes that most of the existing solar panels around the world will remain bolted to rooftops for at least 30 years.

The most likely scenario, they believe, is that millions of people would have to tear out their solar panels early in order to install cheaper and more efficient replacements. In this case, by 2030, the volume of solar waste could be up to 50 times higher than predicted by IREA.

By 2035, the solar industry could generate 2.5 tons of waste for every ton of solar panels it installs, crushing municipalities and homeowners with disposal costs. “The economics of solar energy – so bright from a 2021 perspective – would quickly darken as the industry sinks under the weight of its own waste,” she and her co-authors wrote in a recent review of their research for the Harvard Business Review.

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And Duran’s team only studied solar panels bolted to residential homes. Add industrial solar farms and the replacement costs become “much, much higher.”

The study compared the upcoming global tide of solar waste to the current e-waste crisis. The sudden boom in rapidly obsolete computers, televisions and cellphones has created mountains of hard-to-recycle waste laden with harmful chemicals, such as lead and cadmium. In the worst cases, shipping containers full of black market e-waste find their way to unregulated landfills in the developing world.

Discarded electronic components sit in a crate at the Attero Recycling Pvt facility in the Raipur industrial area of ​​Bhagwanpur in Roorkee, Uttarkhand, India on Monday October 7, 2013. About 90% waste recycling Electronics in India is run by the so-called unorganized sector, which is highly inefficient, endangers the health and safety of workers and is highly polluting.
Discarded electronic components sit in a crate at the Attero Recycling Pvt facility in the Raipur industrial area of ​​Bhagwanpur in Roorkee, Uttarkhand, India on Monday October 7, 2013. About 90% waste recycling Electronics in India is run by the so-called unorganized sector, which is highly inefficient, endangers the health and safety of workers and is highly polluting. Photo by Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg

“History seems to be repeating itself with renewable energy installations, and quite possibly much sooner than we thought,” the newspaper read.

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With cheaper and more efficient solar technology each year, solar panels are plagued by many of the same lifespan issues as consumer electronics. Just as computers get faster and faster every year, solar panels produce more and more electricity – about 0.5% more efficient every year.

Rapid technological advancements also make it “almost impossible to imagine a strong market for used solar panels”, reads Duran’s study.

A customer inspects a solar panel attached to a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall at a home in Monkton, VT, United States, Monday, May 2, 2016. One year after Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Motors Designed Powerwall Inc. studio near Los Angeles, the first wave of residential installations has started in the United States.  The 6.4 kilowatt-hour unit stores electricity for solar home systems and provides backup in the event of a conventional outage.
A customer inspects a solar panel attached to a Tesla Motors Inc. Powerwall at a home in Monkton, VT, United States, Monday, May 2, 2016. One year after Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Motors Designed Powerwall Inc. studio near Los Angeles, the first wave of residential installations has started in the United States. The 6.4 kilowatt-hour unit stores electricity for solar home systems and provides backup in the event of a conventional outage. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist / Bloomberg

Duran’s team noted that none of this is a reason to abandon solar technology, writing in Harvard Business Review that a garbage crisis is still a relatively minor problem compared to leaving a “damaged planet.” if not dying to future generations “as a result of the use of fossil fuels. The ‘tsunami’ is also expected to stabilize once the rapid advancements in solar technology slow down and it becomes less attractive to swap still-working roof panels for a more modern alternative. “It will probably be a big but temporary problem,” said Duran.

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Nonetheless, the paper urges the green tech industry to “seriously anticipate this tsunami of solar panel waste” and consider new designs and end-of-life treatment that could prevent the next mountains of obsolete solar panels from falling. are simply buried in landfills.

The researchers also note that solar power is not the only aspect of the green economy with a looming and unresolved waste problem, indicating a coming tide of obsolete electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines, which don’t. also have no easy path to recycling.

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