Solar energy isn’t the earth-friendly technology is touted as.
According to new research, the creation of solar panels generates 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy generated than nuclear power.
Solar panels contain heavy metals like lead, chromium and cadmium, which are all harmful to the environment. Everybody knows about the dangers of nuclear waste – but nothing is being done to mitigate the environmental damage of solar waste.
Specifically the old panels that get thrown into a landfill.
The discarded panels are piling up all over the globe and they are decidedly not clean.
The group Environmental Progress conducted a study that showed in Japan alone, there will be 1.6 billionpounds of solar panel waste by 2040 – with no plan for safely disposing of it.
California is America’s largest producer and consumer of solar energy technology. They currently have no plan for dealing with the waste and it just heads to their burgeoning landfills.
In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled, the National Review reports.
“We talk a lot about the dangers of nuclear waste, but that waste is carefully monitored, regulated, and disposed of,” says Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of nuclear energy. “But we had no idea there would be so many panels — an enormous amount — that could cause this much ecological damage.”
Solar panel waste is not handled in the same way that nuclear waste is, Dr. Jeff Terry, a professor of nuclear physics involved in energy research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “There are two types of waste from solar. Waste from the manufacturing scene and waste from the solar panel after it has gone through its useful life. There are materials in those that if they leached out, it wouldn’t be good.”
Solar panels can not easily be stored in a landfill without contaminating the area and breaking the panels down for recycling is an extremely labor-intensive and unprofitable process.
“If you just throw a solar panel in a landfill, it’ll break down and cause issues,” Terry said. “People just aren’t dealing with solar waste yet and nobody has a real plan on what to do with these panels after they start coming off of houses. With nuclear, they entirely plan out how to use the waste and it is factored in.”
Of course, nuclear waste is terribly dangerous too. But with time, nuclear waste naturally decays into benign levels. It does take hundreds or thousands of years, but heavy metal waste never decays and remains toxic in the environment forever.
Air Pollution Casts Shadow over Solar Energy Production
JULY 1, 2017
Duke engineering professor Michael Bergin (left) stands with Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar colleague Chinmay Ghoroi (right) next to that university’s extremely dusty solar panel array.
Global solar energy production is taking a major hit due to air pollution and dust.
According to a new study, airborne particles and their accumulation on solar cells are cutting energy output by more than 25 percent in certain parts of the world. The regions hardest hit are also those investing the most in solar energy installations: China, India and the Arabian Peninsula.
The study appears online June 23 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
“My colleagues in India were showing off some of their rooftop solar installations, and I was blown away by how dirty the panels were,” said Michael Bergin, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University and lead author of the study. “I thought the dirt had to affect their efficiencies, but there weren’t any studies out there estimating the losses. So we put together a comprehensive model to do just that.”
With colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Bergin measured the decrease in solar energy gathered by the IITGN’s solar panels as they became dirtier over time. The data showed a 50-percent jump in efficiency each time the panels were cleaned after being left alone for several weeks.
The researchers also sampled the grime to analyze its composition, revealing that 92 percent was dust while the remaining fraction was composed of carbon and ion pollutants from human activity. While this may sound like a small amount, light is blocked more efficiently by smaller man-made particles than by natural dust. As a result, the human contributions to energy loss are much greater than those from dust, making the two sources roughly equal antagonists in this case.
“The manmade particles are also small and sticky, making them much more difficult to clean off,” said Bergin. “You might think you could just clean the solar panels more often, but the more you clean them, the higher your risk of damaging them.”
Having previously analyzed pollutants discoloring India’s Taj Mahal, Bergin already had a good idea of how these different particles react to sunlight. Using his earlier work as a base, he created an equation that accurately estimates the amount of sunlight blocked by different compositions of solar panel dust and pollution buildup.
But grimy buildup on solar panels isn’t the only thing blocking sunlight—the ambient particles in the air also have a screening effect.
For that half of the sun-blocking equation, Bergin turned to Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke and an expert in using the NASA GISS Global Climate Model.
Because the climate model already accounts for the amount of the sun’s energy blocked by different types of airborne particles, it was not a stretch to estimate the particles’ effects on solar energy. The NASA model also estimates the amount of particulate matter deposited on surfaces worldwide, providing a basis for Bergin’s equation to calculate how much sunlight would be blocked by accumulated dust and pollution.
The resulting calculations estimate the total loss of solar energy production in every part of the world. While the United States has relatively little migratory dust, more arid regions such as the Arabian Peninsula, Northern India and Eastern China are looking at heavy losses — 17 to 25 percent or more, assuming monthly cleanings. If cleanings take place every two months, those numbers jump to 25 or 35 percent.
There are, of course, multiple variables that affect solar power production both on a local and regional level. For example, a large construction zone can cause a swift buildup of dust on a nearby solar array.
The Arabian Peninsula loses much more solar power to dust than it does manmade pollutants, Bergin said. But the reverse is true for regions of China, and regions of India are not far behind.
“China is already looking at tens of billions of dollars being lost each year, with more than 80 percent of that coming from losses due to pollution,” said Bergin. “With the explosion of renewables taking place in China and their recent commitment to expanding their solar power capacity, that number is only going to go up.”
“We always knew these pollutants were bad for human health and climate change, but now we’ve shown how bad they are for solar energy as well,” continued Bergin. “It’s yet another reason for policymakers worldwide to adopt emissions controls.”
It should be a no brainer, but the sunniest regions also tend to be the driest, and hence dustiest.
I hear that India is experimenting with robot cleaners, but either way, cleaning will add to the cost.
Jo Nova also makes the important point that cleaning solar panels also risks damaging them.