Old Solar Panels Causing An Environmental Crisis In China

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Thousands of ageing solar panels sited throughout China could trigger an environmental crisis over the next two decades, according to industry experts.

China has more solar power plants than any other country, operating roughly twice as many solar panels as the U.S. with no plans on how to dispose of the old panels that break down.

“It will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment, if the estimate is correct,” Tian Min, general manager of a Chinese recycling company, told The South China Morning Post. “This is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle.”

There could be 20 million metric tons of solar panel waste, or 2,000 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower, by 2050 according to Lu Fang, the secretary general of solar power at the China Renewable Energy Society.

Solar panels use hazardous materials, like sulfuric acid and phosphine gas, in the manufacturing process that makes them hard to recycle. Solar panels also have relatively short operational lifespans and can’t be stored in a landfill without protections against contamination.

Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity generated than nuclear power plants, according to research by the green group Environmental Progress. Solar panels use heavy metals, including lead, chromium and cadmium, which can harm the environment. The hazards of nuclear waste are well known and can be planned for, but very little has been done to mitigate solar waste issues.

Nearby Japan is already scrambling for ways to reuse its mounting inventory of solar panel waste, which is expected to exceed 10,000 tons by 2020 and eventually grow to 800,000 tons per year by 2040. Additionally, governments like Japan and China that heavily support solar power don’t require manufacturers to collect and dispose of solar waste.

Some research indicates that solar panels aren’t even an effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is the entire justification to promote the technology.

The net impact of solar panels actually temporarily increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, due to how much energy is used in their construction, a study published in December 2016 concluded. The solar industry has been “a temporary net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions,” and more modern solar panels have a smaller adverse environmental impact than older models. Scientists estimated that by 2018 at the latest, the solar industry as a whole could have a net positive environmental impact.

Federal data suggests that building solar panels significantly increases emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), which is 17,200 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over a 100 year time period. NF3 emissions have increased by 1,057 percent over the last 25 years. In comparison, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions only rose by about 5 percent during the same time period.

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