Solar panels are popping up in more and more places, generating electricity for individuals, businesses, and the wider electric grid. But those panels aren’t immortal. They get replaced just like any other component. What happens to solar panels – and other renewable power generators – when they are no longer useful?
That’s a dirty secret of clean energy. As the Harvard Business Review reports, there’s a “deluge of waste” confronting the solar industry, and it has no means to effectively, or efficiently, recycle it:
…solar’s production boom has left its recycling infrastructure in the dust. To give you some indication, First Solar is the sole U.S. panel manufacturer we know of with an up-and-running recycling initiative, which only applies to the company’s own products at a global capacity of two million panels per year. With the current capacity, it costs an estimated $20-30 to recycle one panel. Sending that same panel to a landfill would cost a mere $1-2.
The direct cost of recycling is only part of the end-of-life burden, however. Panels are delicate, bulky pieces of equipment usually installed on rooftops in the residential context. Specialized labor is required to detach and remove them, lest they shatter to smithereens before they make it onto the truck. In addition, some governments may classify solar panels as hazardous waste, due to the small amounts of heavy metals (cadmium, lead, etc.) they contain. This classification carries with it a string of expensive restrictions — hazardous waste can only be transported at designated times and via select routes, etc.
The totality of these unforeseen costs could crush industry competitiveness.
The authors of the HBR article assure us the benefits of green energy are far greater than the costs – if government intervenes to fix the recycling problem. Aside from asking government to fix a problem its enormous subsidies and mandates have created is not exactly wise public policy.
As Cato’s David Boaz writes: “Before we create new policies, it would behoove us to eliminate the policies that may have caused the very problem we’re trying to solve.” For solar, that would mean revisiting the incentives and subsidies that encourage large-scale waste, rather than lobbying for government recycling mandate.