When you typically think of solar energy, the thought of clean, sustainable electricity comes to mind. You can think of the sun as a massive battery that’s providing an everlasting source of power.
With that being said, solar energy, or at least our effort to harness solar energy, can have a negative environmental impact.
This is especially the case in China, where they are facing the dilemma of how to dispose of aging solar panels. It’s estimated that by 2034, China’s cumulative capacity of recycled panels could reach up to 70 gigawatts (GW). By 2050, that number could reach 20 million tons. To put that number in perspective, that’s 2,000 times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.
So, what’s the problem? What exactly happens when you have this many solar panels sitting around in one place, and what is the impact on the environment?
China’s solar panel problem
China doubled its number of solar panels by more than half in 2016 alone. While China has benefited immensely from the energy generated by this massive investment, it has outstripped its ability to create a manageable retirement plan.
According to the US Department of Energy, the lifespan of a solar panel will typically span 20 to 30 years depending on the environment where the panels are installed. This number is reduced when you consider solar panels that live in areas that experience dust or snow storms regularly.
China faces this dilemma, plus an even more significant issue. Many of its solar panels are installed in remote areas, away from sophisticated recycling plants that may be equipped to handle large numbers of solar panels.
That means a massive amount of money will be needed to transport aging solar panels from the site of installation to the recycling center.
The outlook painted by Tian Min, a general manager of Nanjing Fangrun Materials, doesn’t look pleasant.
“It will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment if the estimate is correct,” Tian says. “This is a huge amount of waste, and they are not easy to recycle.”
What type of impact can solar panels have on the environment?
When a large solar panel facility is installed, there are concerns about land degradation and the loss of habitat. The amount of land needed for a solar panel installation depends on the needs of the area, the technology used, and the intensity of the equipment.
Furthermore, the manufacturing process involves the use of hazardous materials which often include hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, acetone, nitric acid, and sulfuric acid
All of these materials can do significant harm to the environment, depending on the amount used. These chemicals also pose a threat to the health of workers handling the material, though this can be mitigated by proper safety measures.
There’s also the impact of global warming emissions to consider. No, solar panels themselves do not contribute to global warming emissions. However, the manufacturing process of transporting, installing, maintaining, decommissioning, and dismantling panels all contribute to harmful emissions.
What can be done to avoid this issue?
Let’s be clear here. Solar panels do more good than they do harm. However, it’s essential to think of the long-term impact solar panels may have on the environment. The situation in China proves that a good retirement plan needs to be implemented to avoid significant damage to the environment.
We likely won’t see significant environmental damage anytime soon – solar panels have a long life-span after all – but it’s a problem we should address now to avoid a catastrophe a few decades down the road.