Solar's Dirty Little Secret...

Albert Camus famously said:

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding…”

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-necessit….

Per the LA Times via Yahoo News July 14, 2022:

Now that rooftop solar has been popular for about 20 years, most old solar panels are finding their way into landfills, potentially contaminating groundwater with toxic heavy metals, lead, selenium, and cadmium.

Experts in recycling estimate that only about 10% of old panels are being recycled, primarily because extracting glass, silver, and silicon is simply not economically or practically feasible, even if recyclers and owners of panels were inclined to do so.

Only about $2 to $4 worth of materials are recovered from each panel. The majority of processing costs are tied to labor, and… even recycling panels at scale would not be more economical.

Most research on photovoltaic panels is focused on recovering solar-grade silicon to make recycling economically viable. That skews the economic incentives against recycling. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that it costs roughly $20 to $30 to recycle a panel versus $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill.

https://news.yahoo.com/california-went-big-rooftop-solar-120…

Toxic environmental damage caused by old solar panels somehow pales in comparison to our dependence upon coal-fired electrical plants to heat water and cook our meals even as we outlaw the use of “clean” natural gas appliances.

The words of Camus bear repeating:

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding…”

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/510283-the-evil-that-is-in-…

[Emphasis added throughout.]

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Sorry - this article is not what you advertise. Solar panels are being recycled. There is not giagantic problem. The gigantic problems are with coal mining wastes, coal ash ponds, nuclear wastes, and petroleum wastes.

Jaak

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Now that rooftop solar has been popular for about 20 years,

If there is a problem, it is being pushed down the road.

In my case I got solar 7 years ago, with a 25 year warranty that the installer warranted for 5 more years to 80% of original power output. The next year the same panels with the same model numbers now had a 30 year warranty. Just last week the installer radio ads say they now have a 50 year warranty. I don’t know the terms; and this could just be a marketing ploy since how many people will be around in 30+ year to make a claim?

Meanwhile I just noticed a 3" solar panel that charges a battery that lights up some LEDs on a patio umbrella is totally damaged from the heat. The wafer has bubbled and you’d never know it was a solar cell. But it still works. Purchased about 6 or 7 years ago.

Mike

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The stuff in the ground is not a pollutant but back in the ground it is a pollutant.

Weird!

The Captain

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As noted, coal mining itself is an ecological disaster, let alone burning the stuff. Getting petroleum out of the ground has profound issues too, especially with fracking. For some reason, the people who harp about the “problems” of green energy either forget, side-step, or are unaware. If only they researched the problems with fossil fuels as much as the “research” the problems of green energy.

So green energy isn’t perfect. It has issues. Big deal. It’s so much better than the fossil fuels. Just imagine where we could be if we seriously invested in its development. We could be a world-leader in new energy sources. But no, we keep pretending fossil fuels aren’t a problem and climate change is a hoax.

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New Panasonic panels this year on my roof are warranted to be at 92% production capacity at 25 years.

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New Panasonic panels this year on my roof are warranted to be at 92% production capacity at 25 years.

The length of the warranty does not change the dynamics of the question regarding what they do with those panels that fail under warranty.

Having a warranty does not guarantee against failure. It just guarantees that you won’t have to pay full cost when they do fail. A smart manufacturer builds in the risk of failure into their cost.

We likely all have had work done on our vehicles, our HVAC systems, our treadmills, etc. while under warranty.

This seems like an area where the market has failed and it would be advisable for the government to provide incentives - either through credits or by regulating the manufacturer, to increase recycling.

Hawkwin
Who is still holding out hope that his state will reverse their restrictive legislation on solar panels.

1 Like

Having a warranty does not guarantee against failure. It just guarantees that you won’t have to pay full cost when they do fail.

And that is assuming that the company that gave you the warranty is still around after 25 years.

DB2

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Having a warranty does not guarantee against failure. It just guarantees that you won’t have to pay full cost when they do fail.

I don’t know if my Orinda daughter’s inherited from previous owner 40 panels had a warranty, they only feed the grid, not usable themselves. The problem they had a few years back was that soot from forest fires reduced the amount of power being fed to the grid.

Tim

The length of the warranty does not change the dynamics of the question regarding what they do with those panels that fail under warranty.

You are correct. But it does make a difference. What if the panels had a warranty of 50 years at 92%?
That would mean that half of the problem with what to do with them goes away.

Mike

I don’t know if my Orinda daughter’s inherited from previous owner 40 panels had a warranty,

I think that in order to qualify for federal rebates there had to be a minimum warranty of some kind.

they only feed the grid, not usable themselves.

That is an electrical design choice that has nothing to do with the panels.
She could opt to get an automatic crossover switch if desired.

The problem they had a few years back was that soot from forest fires reduced the amount of power being fed to the grid.

And oil spills from tankers sometimes.

Note: panels can be cleaned easier than beaches can be cleaned up

Mike

6 Likes

they only feed the grid, not usable themselves.

If the grid goes down, and you are still attached to the grid, you try to power the grid. That’s the way wires work, power can go both ways. What is needed is a cross over switch that automatically disconnects your house from the grid if it goes down. Your panels then power you, not the neighborhood. These switches are extra money and not everyone gets them.

I see the point in that scenario still. You are helping to relieve pressure on the grid, which is good (we in Texas in particular know this too well). And in Texas, the largest demand is usually in the hot sunny weather when panels excel, again relieving stress on the grid.

But if you want power in your house when the grid fails you MUST have a way to disconnect yourself from the grid. A friend got a system like this 6 months ago. He lost power in winter 2021 for a week and that pushed him over the edge. He has batteries in the garage, lots of panels, and an automatic disconnect system. He doesn’t worry about power any longer.

“If the grid goes down, and you are still attached to the grid, you try to power the grid. That’s the way wires work, power can go both ways. What is needed is a cross over switch that automatically disconnects your house from the grid if it goes down. Your panels then power you, not the neighborhood. These switches are extra money and not everyone gets them.”

In order to do this, you need a battery bank - something like a Tesla power wall, or a large collection of batteries in a battery rack for hours and hours of power. $10,000-25000 …

then you can switch over and use your solar cells while the sun shines. Of course, by 4pm your power is falling off quickly from the panels …

You really need a big battery system if you expect to keep an average TX home with two a/c or three a/c units working plus the TVs, refrig, freezer, and sound systems, computer/modems, and everything else. Plus lights of course.

t.

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most old solar panels are finding their way into landfills, potentially contaminating groundwater with toxic heavy metals, lead, selenium, and cadmium.

Landfills are getting piled with stuff every day that ‘potentially’ could contaminate groundwater. Every piece of electronics that gets thrown away probably has the same issue as the solar panels. And I guarantee there’s tons of stuff getting tossed in there that would contaminate groundwater with toxics a lot more readily than electronics or solar panels.

It’s not really a big problem, IMO. Modern landfills are double lined, and when a section is closed, it’s capped off so that rain doesn’t percolate down through the fill. Multiple safeguards to keep the nasties out of the groundwater. Old unlined landfills are another story entirely …

There’s no reason, IMO, at this point, to force an expensive and energy intensive recycling mandate on old solar cells, just make sure they’re properly disposed of in a modern landfill at end of life when they’ll no longer produce usable power.

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The stuff in the ground is not a pollutant but back in the ground it is a pollutant.

I think that certain molecules, when embedded in others, like perhaps embedded in stone, are entirely safe. But when isolated, let’s say from stones, and then released back into the ground, become harmful.

Not so weird.