Solar panel disposal becomes a worrying issue as toxic PV cells die

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Typical panels have a quarter century lifespan, meaning there are megatons of trash about to occur.

Solar panel disposal is finding its way into a growing spotlight as this important renewable energy source reveals an important drawback to its use.

The photovoltaic cells may seem to work in a very simple way, but they are large, complex machinery.

Though photovoltaic (PV) cells are rising in importance as a source of renewable energy, the issue as to what to do about solar panel disposal has not yet been solved. Many countries, organizations and individuals are turning to sunlight as an essential power source in the fight against climate change. However, as much as the energy they produce may be carbon-free and avoids fossil fuels, the panels themselves have a limited lifespan.

The typical PV panel will last around 25 years. After that point, this green energy generator becomes a large, heavy toxic form of waste. As the electronic waste from the first major wave of use approaches, a strategy is required to deal with it. As of yet, the world has not developed such a strategy.

Solar panel disposal will involve millions of metric tons of toxic waste product by 2050.

The International Renewable Energy Agency forecasts that as many as 78 million metric tons of photovoltaic panels will no longer be usable by 2050. By that time, the planet will generate an additional 6 million metric tons of new PV electronic waste every year.

As of yet, current electronic recycling methods aren’t viable for PV cells. Custom recycling solutions would be required to extract the most valuable metals from the cells. These metals include silicon and silver. If the technology necessary to recycle those materials is not developed at the pace required to keep up with the widespread adoption policies currently being implemented, it will lead to a disposal nightmare.

“If we don’t mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfill,” explained solar researcher Meng Tao from Arizona State University, who recently wrote a review paper on solar panel disposal through recycling. Panels currently comprise about 95 percent of the sunlight-to-electricity market.

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