Thursday, 2 May 2013

Does the Solar Industry have a Dark Side?

Image: Dilapidated Solar Panels.

"One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea."
— Walter Bagehot - British businessman, essayist and journalist

In the light of Global warming, low emission renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies are growing rapidly. In 2009 there were 9 GW in PV power installed worldwide, half of it in Europe.  According to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) this number will increase and reach 22 GW in 2013 [1]. The installed PV power in Canada grew from 94.57 MW at the end of 2009 to 291.13 MW in 2010 [2].

The Motto is: "Go Green and promote the PV Industry!" And why not? The sun produces enough energy in one hour to power the Earth’s population for an entire year [3]. Let’s use this energy that comes free to us. But the problem is that the PV Industry is not as green as it seems. Just because there is no waste produced during the operation of the solar module does not mean there is no waste produced at all. It is not so much the waste produced during production of the solar modules as the solar module itself when it reaches the end of its life cycle. For example: 20 MW of installed PV power equals to approximately 1 Million modules [4]. Given 22 GW in 2013, we are talking about more than a billion spent modules that will need to be dealt with. What will happen to these modules at the end of their lifecycles? 

The PV industry relies on the use of toxic materials like Cadmium and Lead.  Cadmium and Lead are toxic substances that effect the cardiovascular organ system as well as the development of the organ system during periods of growth [5].  The average consumer has no means to recycle a spent solar module and will most likely take their modules to the next landfill. The government should assume its environmental responsibility and regulate the PV manufacturing industry to ensure the recycling of solar modules.

Europe has two directives that deal with the problem of toxic materials and the manufacturing responsibility: The directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHs), which includes substances like Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, Chromate, PBB and PBDE. Its goal is to avert or to substitute these substances.  The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE-Directive) imposes the responsibility on the manufacturers of such equipment and aspires to establish an infrastructure for collecting WEEE to use the collected waste in an ecologically-friendly manner [6]. But these policies currently allow an exemption for solar modules.

To prevent or to delay the admission of solar modules to the RoHs and WEEE Directive, the solar associations, EPIA and other solar companies formed in 2007, a voluntary PV recycling initiative called PV CYCLE which as of this date is only a European pursuit.  PV CYCLE represents approximately 90% of the European solar market today [7]. Consumers, who, having purchased solar modules from members of PV CYCLE, get to recycle their spent solar modules for free if they transport their modules to one of the collection points of PV CYCLE. There are 272 collection points which are located in all EU Member States as well as in the European Free Trade Associations (EFTA) countries, which include Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Solar modules which were collected at these points are transported to specialized recycling facilities.

Image: Solar Power Recycling   

There are only two recycling plants which operate on an industrial scale. The pilot plant SUNICON is located in Freiberg (Germany). This plant is recycling modules made with solar cells using crystalline silicon. The plant has a capacity of 1000 tons per year [8]. There is also a recycling plant for cadmium telluride (CdTe) modules owned by FIRST SOLAR [9].  The cost of the recycling is covered by their revenue. In addition they claim to be able to recover 95% of the Cadmium they recycle, furthermore FIRST SOLAR created funding for modules that may need to be recycled when the company does no longer exist.

Unless there are efforts made by the industry to accommodate the expected 35 000 tons of spent solar modules expected annually by 2020 [10], they will not be prepared. The industry has been facing this problem for several years now but the investments to solve it have been minimal. This is mainly because recycling is not an economically favorable option and as long as it stays this way the industry has little reason to maintain the existing voluntary initiatives to recycle.  A study undertaken by N. C. McDonald and J. M. Pearce shows that “the initial cost of landfill disposal for…  solar modules is lower than the cost of recycling the modules, which will still make landfill more favorable than recycling for companies with short-term thinking even if the recycling is profitable overall [11].” Therefore the government needs to step in to keep solar modules and their hazardous substances out of our landfills.

The concept of producer responsibility in the traditional energy industry is new. The average consumer is not presented with the means to deal responsibly with the hazardous waste from a spent solar module. Should the government decide to use the concept of producer responsibility for the solar industry as suggested in Europe’s WEEE directive, it should not lead to a competitive disadvantage for the solar industry. It would be unfair and most tragic to possibly destroy a truly sustainable energy industry over the issue of recycling their waste, since their waste is miniscule in comparison to the waste associated with the traditional energy sources like nuclear, oil and coal energy.

Anna Schwaer,
Environmental Scientist,

[1] EPIA - European Photovoltaic Industry Association
[2] cansia - Canadian Solar Industries Association: International Energy Agency: Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme: National Report 2010
[3] Photovoltaics - Your sun your energy
[4] SPIEGEL online - Recycling von Modulen: Solar-Konzerne kämpfen um ihr grünes Image by Von Sascha Rentzing
[5] ATSDR - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry - Cadmium
[6] - European Commission
[7] PV CYCLE - Non-for-profit association managing a fully operational collection and recycling scheme for end-of-life photovoltaic modules throughout Europe
[8] SolarWorld AG - Hochwertige Photovoltaik-/ Solaranlagen: SolarWorld
[9] First Solar - Committed to Reducing Our Carbon Footprint and Environmental Impact
[10] SPIEGEL online - Recycling von Modulen: Solar-Konzerne kämpfen um ihr grünes Image by Von Sascha Rentzing
[11] - Energy Policy - Producer responsibility and recycling solar photovoltaic modules

This article was contributed by Anna Schwaer, an Environmental Scientist from Toronto, Canada. Anna has four years of wide ranging work experience in the photovoltaic industry. She studied Environmental Science at the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany and focused her study there on Limnic and Marine Ecology.
Since April 2013 she considers herself as a freelance collaborator of PeapodLife Building EcoSystems & Technology. She can be reached at LinkedIn: Anna Schwaer.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Tyler,

      wow how did you find this? how are you doing now?


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