“Don’t panic,” said Heather Mirletz of the Colorado School of Mines, lead author of a recent paper that challenges many assumptions about what might happen when the current generation of solar panels reaches the age of retirement.

He has some heartening news for anyone who is deeply concerned, or even slightly disturbed, about how the world is dealing with solar panel waste.

The paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, argues that the panels will last longer than previous estimates, and that solar farm operators should prioritize keeping the panels on the farm as much as possible.

If solar panels can last 40 to 50 years, which is almost double what the standard rule for life span is, it changes the equation for their replacement time and the amount of waste. which is done in energy transfer. And that kind of longevity isn’t much of a stretch, considering that new panels often come with 25-year range warranties, indicating that they should last well beyond that timeframe.

The paper can be read as a counterpoint to some of the estimates in a 2016 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency that has been widely cited (including by me) in discussions about increasing demand for solar panel recycling. The report projects that the United States will have a cumulative total of 7.5 to 10 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2050.

Since 2016, the pace of solar power development has accelerated to the point that old estimates are no longer reliable. Based on this development, the amount of waste in 2050 will be higher than what IRENA expects.

Heather Mirletz
Heather Mirletz

But that’s not the case, according to Mirletz and his co-authors. Using more recent data on the reliability of solar panels, they estimate that the United States will have a cumulative total of 8 million metric tons of waste by 2050. Considering the increase in assumptions since 2016 how much solar to deploy, that’s a huge reduction in the portion of panels that need to be recycled. (For perspective, the country generated more than 250 million metric tons of municipal solid waste in 2018, the most recent year available.)

Instead of being recycled, many of the decades-old panels will still operate, Mirletz said.

But 2050 is a long way off, so let’s talk about what’s happening right now. The findings of the paper also show that the wave of solar panel waste will not hit as soon as the researchers expected. Instead of arriving around 2030, it is more likely around 2040. This gives the recycling industry more time to expand their operations and find ways to reduce costs.

Mirletz is completing a Ph.D. at the Colorado School of Mines in a program working at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a few miles away. His co-authors include Silvana Ovaitt, an NREL researcher.

“We’re trying to look at our energy system more holistically,” Mirletz said. “It’s not just about producing energy, so we can turn on the lights, but it’s also about making sure that the people and the systems are in place throughout the supply chain – everything that’s needed to do that, to turn on the lights. —doesn’t hurt people.”

He talks about the so-called “circular economy,” which emphasizes the continuous reuse of materials and tries to reduce what ends up in landfills.

Solar Growth and Solar Waste

Applying these principles to solar power, he and his co-authors found that there is not much research on the life cycle of solar panels that takes into account recent improvements in the efficiency and durability of the panels. .

“We want to bring back a little bit of this fear of, ‘We have (tens of) metric tons of waste from PV. We’re all going to die,'” he said. “PV” stands for photovoltaic, which is the process of converting sunlight into electricity with solar panels.

He scoffs at fears that their detritus will contribute to our mortality, but it reflects the way solar waste is often discussed by opponents of solar projects, and the tone of a good piece of reporting on media on the subject.

The findings are based in part on a modeling tool developed by NREL, which uses recent reliability data to improve predictions of how long solar panels will last in the field.

The results show that it may be better to use solar panels on existing arrays as long as possible rather than replacing them when they reach the age that means retirement. That way, the newly manufactured panels can be used mostly in new projects.

There are some caveats, including that solar technology is constantly changing and improvements in power output don’t necessarily match gains in durability, Mirletz said. So, this type of analysis should be done regularly as we move into an era where solar power is rapidly expanding.

Environmental Journalism Lives On

ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.

Donate Now

Also, there is disagreement among researchers about how much solar power should be built to reach net-zero carbon emissions, which is a key variable in projecting the amount of waste. This paper derives its estimate for solar deployment from data in the Solar Futures Study released by the Department of Energy last year. Some estimates are higher or lower.

But under almost every scenario, there is more solar power, and with it it is necessary to know how to get the most out of this resource while also reducing technological waste.

GOP Seizes Voter Reluctance to Attack Expensive EVs: With the midterm elections just days away, several Republican candidates are mocking a key part of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda: electric vehicles. The candidates say Democrats’ support for EVs will leave Americans broke, stranded on the road and even in the dark, Hope Yen and Matthew Daly report for the Associated Press. Many of these attacks are false. “There’s still a lot of selling to do before EVs catch on with the American people,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime staffer for the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Biden Administration Selects Top Two Zones for Gulf Coast Wind Development: The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has selected two sites for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Mexico, marking the beginning of wind energy development there. By the end of this decade, wind turbines will be in use at a 174,000-acre site south of Lake Charles, Louisiana and a 508,000-acre site near Galveston, Texas, as Tristan Baurick reports for Nola .com. “These two wind energy sites represent exciting progress in having the first offshore wind sales in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is a mature industry base and the know-how to develop of energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf,” said Amanda Lefton, the bureau’s. director, in a statement.

Nation’s Largest Electric Bus Microgrid Opens for Business in Maryland: The transit agency in Montgomery County, Maryland envisions a self-sustaining island of power when the grid goes down and low-cost, self-generated energy when the grid is up. The Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot, which recently opened, uses a combination of electric buses, solar panels, backup batteries and a microgrid control system, as reported by Jeff St. John for Canary Media. It is at least the third solar-powered transit bus charging depot in the country, following the Antelope Valley Transit Authority in California and the Vineyard Transit Authority on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Global Energy Report Says Sick at the Pump, High Energy Costs May Create a Silver Lining for Climate and Security: The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report says the blame for rising energy prices around the world can be placed squarely on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But the energy crisis is leading the United States, Europe, China and India to put in place new energy strategies that, in the long term, could lead to greater sustainability and stability, including more renewable energy, as reported by my colleague James Bruggers. ICN. “Government responses around the world promise to make this a historic and decisive change towards a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy system,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, in a statement.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly newsletter of news and analysis on the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *