Solar panels could spell disaster for Earth: when things get out of control

Dmytro IvancheskulLife
Even greenhouses are covered with solar panels in China

Solar panels, now being installed en masse around the world as part of the fight to reduce carbon emissions, could eventually become a real environmental problem for humanity when the time comes to dispose of them.

According to the BBC, about four million tons of solar panels will be recycled by 2030, but by 2050 the situation could be completely out of control.

The main problem is that the lifetime of solar panels is only up to 25 years, and due to their constant improvement, it will most likely be cheaper for users to replace the panels even after 10 years of use. So eventually, billions of panels will need to be recycled and replaced.

Dr. Rong Deng, a solar panel recycling expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says there are already "up to 2.5 billion" panels installed worldwide, but there is not enough specialized infrastructure to dispose of and recycle them.

"It will be a mountain of waste by 2050 if we don't start recycling chains now," warns Ute Koller, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

In 2021, the world's solar power generation capacity grew by 22%. In particular, about 13,000 photovoltaic solar panels are installed each month in the UK - most of them on the roofs of private homes.

In many cases, such solar installations become relatively uneconomical even before their useful life expires. As new, more efficient designs become available, it may be cheaper to replace solar panels that are only 10 or 15 years old with updated versions.

Collier notes that if current growth trends continue, the volume of scrap solar panels could be huge.

"By 2030, we think we'll have four million tons (of scrap) - that's still manageable. But by 2050, we could have more than 200 million tons worldwide," the expert noted.

By comparison, the ubiquitous plastic produces 400 million tons per year.

Now a step towards solving the problem is being prepared by France, where the world's first plant for complete recycling of solar panels will open at the end of June.

ROSI, which owns the plant, intends to achieve recycling efficiency, in which 99% of the components of solar panels can be reused.

In addition to glass and aluminum frames, which make up the main part of the panels' construction, experts note the need to extract precious materials contained in the panels. We are talking about silver and copper, which can then be used to make new solar panels.

Each solar panel contains only tiny fragments of these precious materials, and these fragments are so intertwined with other components that, until now, it has not been economically viable to extract them. But 60% of the cost of solar panels is just that.

Experts also acknowledge that there is simply not enough silver to cover the world's demand for solar panels, so its reuse is essential.

The current problems with the lack of infrastructure for recycling, as the experts point out, have developed because the first generation of household solar panels is just now coming to its end of life. That is, when they will be taken out of service in the near future, it will be necessary to take measures for their recycling.

"Now is a good time to think about that," Collier notes.

Previously, OBOZREVATEL also told about the fact that on one of the most isolated places on Earth, the volcanic island of Trindade, found rocks formed from floating in the ocean of plastic trash.

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