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From Green to Grey: Solar Panel Lifecycle

As renewable sources of energy continue to grow exponentially in popularity, solar power has been a particular favourite among many. More solar farms are installed and solar panels have become a trendier installation in private homes as well as in small technology.

In the last 10 years, the number of active panels has risen rapidly.

This culture, while admittedly more environmentally friendly in terms of energy production, creates a new type of problem for the industry. When conducting a lifecycle analysis (LCA) on solar panels, their end of life is currently impossible to determine. Because of this, there are very few offered solutions to the problem of disposing of the electricals and highly toxic raw materials found in solar panels. This raises two main questions: can the toxic chemicals be eliminated from the manufacturing process, and if not, what are the options for when solar panels are at the end of their life?

With the long lifetime of solar panels, there are very few cases of panels at the end of their lifecycle to draw experience from, and so the plans are largely hypothetical. While elements such as glass, aluminium and semiconductors can be recycled and reused in making new solar panels or other products, there is a lot of waste that comes from the panels. Due to this, there are concerns: the current model of recycling this type of electronic waste is non-existent, and relies heavily on landfills: many examples of which can be found in China where the US exports 80% of the e-waste. From the landfills, the toxic waste easily spreads into the environment, harming living matter and soil.

Mostly, this is a problem in countries such as the US, China, India and Japan, as most of the European countries fall under moderate regulation from the EU. Nevertheless, these regulations are not enough to allow countries to cope with the increasing amount of solar panel waste – for example the UK is expected to have 1 – 1.2 million tonnes by 2050.

A practise like this can easily reduce even an energy solution as green as solar power quickly into a solution with a high negative impact on its surroundings. A similar issue is quickly arising in the case of lithium batteries as a means of storing power. Dashboard believes that for solar power to be truly green, the complete LCA should align with sustainable goals, and find the current model problematic.