Is Solar Power Truly As Sustainable As We Think?

There hasn’t been a topic more vehemently discussed in the 21st century than climate sustainability. Whether it is on public platforms or in public discourse, sustainability always seems to come up as a critical talking point. In fact, there is a whole slew of campaigns going on that one feels almost obliged to install solar panels on rooftops, buy an electric car or a scooter, and switch to sustainable forms of consumption at every possible instance.

Luckily, for anyone aiming to fulfill this, the cheapest and most convenient option is the installation of solar panels. Although solar technology was invented in the late 1800s, it only got recognized as a popular green energy source in the last decade or so – thanks to the steady reduction in panel costs, the increase in panel efficiency, and the universal desire to ‘go green’.

That being said, is solar truly as sustainable as we think? Let’s have a look. Solar energy is generated with the help of solar panels that are made of photovoltaic cells. These panels, just like humans, have a finite life. While most solar panels go the full distance of 25-30 years, some deteriorate faster. But it isn’t the age of the panel that concerns people; it’s what happens to them afterward.

While in this day and age, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that every dead panel goes into recycling, the reality of it may actually surprise you. Only less than 10 percent of solar panels get recycled. The rest end up in landfills and accumulate as e-waste, just like most cell phone and electric car batteries. What’s even more shocking is the staggering magnitude of this problem. Research suggests that our planet will be home to nearly 80 million metric tons of solar waste by the year 2050.

That’s enough e-waste to fill up 210 Burj Khalifa buildings; or in other words, equivalent to DOUBLE the plastic waste that we suffer from today. And this is assuming customers keep their panels running for the entirety of their 30- year life cycle. If the possibility of widespread early replacement is taken into account, these numbers would be even higher.

So why aren’t they being recycled? Unlike objects like aluminum cans, that can be easily shredded, crushed, and reheated to form a new block of raw aluminum, the exertion and cost involved in extracting useful components from discarded solar panels are extremely high. Among valuable items that can be recovered include internal copper and silver, but they are usually only found in small quantities. The other usable component is silicon. But unfortunately for recyclers, the quality of the recovered silicon is so low that it can, at best, be used for the sole of a shoe or the cover of a phone.

Perhaps the only object that can be easily retained and reused is discarded glass, which sadly doesn’t fetch a lot of money. Long story short, while breaking down and reprocessing a single solar panel would cost close to 2500 rupees, selling all the scraped-up residue would fetch a meager 350-400 rupees – a clear loss for the recycler.

The result? Discarded panels that lie in landfills and burn in incinerators accelerate the already existing crisis of groundwater contamination and air pollution. That said, e-waste isn’t the only problem concerning solar panels. Maintaining and repairing solar panels also extracts a toll on the environment. For instance, the refinement of silicon in solar panels results in the production of silicon tetrachloride – a corrosive chemical that if conjoined with water, will not only damage the environment but also put people’s health at risk.

Even cleaning solar wafers can have effects detrimental to the environment as it warrants the use of hydrofluoric acid – another dangerous chemical that can adversely affect both soil and groundwater quality. But will fixing these issues alone solve the riddle for solar? Not the least bit. The production of solar panels is just as concerning as its recycling. Because for solar panels to be created, raw materials such as copper, cadmium, lithium, zinc, and nickel have to be mined.

It goes without saying that mining is extremely energy-consuming and has severe extraction impacts like soil erosion, mercury contamination, water shortages, air pollution, and biodiversity loss. To make it worse, the toxic waste that is generated from these activities is often not taken care of responsibly – especially in countries such as Chile, where a quarter of the copper and lithium mining takes place. Even in a scenario where raw materials are ethically mined, processed, and assembled, they are still transported to different parts of the world in petrol, kerosene, or diesel-powered trucks, flights, and cargo ships – further adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Not to mention the fact that minerals such as lithium and cadmium are at risk of having a demand that outstrips supply in the future. Meaning we may eventually run out of minerals that assist panel production. Truth be told, a perfect solution is far from likely. But to some degree, the impact can be mitigated. For instance, along with making recycling mandatory, the government may consider providing more subsidies to manufacturers so that cost does not become an issue in recycling. Likewise, if electric and hydrogen alternatives are introduced fast enough, it will help manufacturers retreat from fuelpowered transport in the future, making logistics more eco-friendly.

As for the human rights abuse and unethical sourcing of raw materials in Africa and South America, imposing stricter laws and holding companies accountable for their actions may help do damage control. While advocates of solar like to claim that these gaps are being bridged, the grim reality is that it isn’t happening fast enough. Unless we address these issues within the next decade, we may struggle to achieve the net zero dream anytime soon.
(Writer is Management Professor, Columnist, and Environment Researcher. Email: [email protected])


Central Chronicle is daily English Newspaper of Chhattisgarh. Central Chronicle has own website it is first news website in Chhattisgarh.

Related Articles

Back to top button