Solar panels are creating 50 times more waste than predicted, and much of it is toxic. Our race to ‘net zero’ is madness

The basic pitch for ‘net zero’ policies to combat climate change is this: a warming world will be devastating, but we can cut emissions down to next-to-nothing by using renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, which will keep on getting cheaper and cheaper. But the idea that we can have it all – energy that is plentiful, zero-carbon, and cheap – is a mirage, at least when it comes to renewables.

Environmentalists’ bright promises of utilising solar energy to power the world are darkening quickly as it becomes clear how much dangerous trash is generated, with tonnes of old panels being discarded in landfill sites.

There are some obvious, long-standing problems with renewables: what happens when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow? Some argue in favour of nuclear energy, others for using biomass (which basically means burning wood pellets and planting new trees to soak up the CO2 eventually), while some hope that energy storage using batteries will save the day. Whatever the solution, the problem of low-carbon electricity is going to keep getting bigger as we demand the phasing out of fossil fuels – including a shift to electric cars and banning gas boilers.

Still, renewables do, on the face of it, look like they might be getting cheaper. Solar panels are slowly getting more efficient. More importantly, the price for each panel has plummeted – perhaps by 70 percent. But the total cost of sticking solar panels onto a network has to take into account paying for backup for when those panels aren’t producing power. Yet that backup is very often treated as if it is a separate cost, rather than a necessary consequence of using an intermittent power source. In reality, renewables are a lot more expensive than proponents like to admit.

But a new article in the Harvard Business Review points to another cost that is frequently downplayed: waste. Solar panels are supposed to last for 30 years, and calculations about how much waste will be produced are based on that assumption. The trouble is that as the panels have got cheaper, and a bit more efficient, the economics have changed. Replacing them sooner could make a lot of sense, financially.

As the authors of the article point out, that could lead to a tsunami of solar panel waste: “If early replacements occur as predicted by our statistical model, they can produce 50 times more waste in just four years than IRENA [International Renewable Energy Agency] anticipates. That figure translates to around 315,000 metric tonnes of waste, based on an estimate of 90 tonnes per MW weight-to-power ratio.” And that estimate is just for domestic solar panel users. Throw in commercial users, too, and the mountain of waste will be enormous.

Ah, supporters of solar will say, the panels can simply be recycled. But there isn’t much of value to be stripped from old solar panels. They are mostly made of glass, and they’re a pain to remove and transport safely. Recycling could cost $20-$30 per panel. Landfill, by contrast, would cost $1-$2 per panel. So if we’re going to recycle the panels, we need to work out who is going to pay the difference.

One solution, already adopted by the EU when it comes to electronic waste, is to put the burden on manufacturers. But companies come in and out of markets all the time. If companies that were selling products a decade ago have now gone bust or left the market for some other reason, the burden will fall on the remaining companies. And the vast majority of solar panels are now coming from China – so who is going to force those manufacturers to pay?

Discover magazine last year warned that “it is often cheaper to discard them in landfills or send them to developing countries. As solar panels sit in dumps, the toxic metals they contain can leach out into the environment and possibly pose a public health hazard if they get into the groundwater supply.” The metals in solar panels include lead, which can impair brain development in children, and cadmium, which is a carcinogen.

Proponents of the ‘circular economy’ think we need to stop thinking about making things in a cradle-to-grave fashion (make it, use it, bin it) and instead think about cradle-to-cradle production (make it, use it, recycle it). But the problem of solar-panel waste could make that cradle-to-cradle model much more expensive. As the Harvard Business Review authors note:

By 2035, discarded panels would outweigh new units sold by 2.56 times. In turn, this would catapult the LCOE (levelized cost of energy, a measure of the overall cost of an energy-producing asset over its lifetime) to four times the current projection. The economics of solar – so bright-seeming from the vantage point of 2021 – would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.”

A long-standing critic of renewables, Michael Shellenberger, sees this as confirmation of concerns he has been expressing for some time. Back in 2018, he wrote an article for Forbes titled ‘If solar panels are so clean, why do they produce so much toxic waste?’. At the time, he was criticised as an apologist for nuclear power, which has its own toxic waste problem. But as Shellenberger notes, the volume of waste from nuclear power is small, and it is comparatively easy simply to store it securely. Ultimately, we may find a way of reusing nuclear waste, but for now it’s really not a huge issue.

By contrast, waste from renewables is bulky. And while radioactive materials are dangerous, of course, the problem of heavy metals like cadmium leaking in large quantities from landfill is actually much worse, because it is not controlled. 

In a new article, Shellenberger challenges proponents of renewable energy to confront the problems that solar and wind energy are creating. “The new research on the coming solar waste crisis, along with rising blackouts from renewables, reinforces the inherent flaws in solar and other forms of renewable energy. Over-relying on solar panels, and underestimating the need for nuclear and natural gas, resulted in California’s blackouts last summer. It’s now clear that China made solar appear cheap with coal, subsidies, and forced labor. And in the US, we pay one-quarter of solar’s costs through taxes and often much more in subsidies at the state and local level.”

I’ve got no problem with using solar, wind, nuclear, or any other form of energy. They all have their uses, their pros and cons. I also think that if we can cut carbon emissions in a cost-effective way, that might well be a sensible idea. I love the idea of electric cars, for example: they’re easier to drive, they’re quiet, they produce no urban pollution and are cheaper to maintain. 

What I hate, however, is the way that the problems associated with the rush to ‘net zero’ are just being glossed over. The policy is astonishingly expensive, and it faces real technical and economic challenges. But if you were to believe politicians and eco-warriors, we’ll soon be powering the world with magic energy pixies, and colourful birds will land on our shoulders to say hello, while everyone smiles as we become one with nature once more. 

If we don’t take the problems of ‘net zero’ seriously, the real result will be economic hardship, unreliable power networks, and limitations imposed on our lives, whether it is demands to stop eating meat or restrictions on our ability to travel. All of this as China, India, and other developing countries rightly power their way out of poverty with coal, gas, and oil, while producing far more emissions than we could ever save. Impoverishing ourselves to achieve nothing is the epitome of irrationality.

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