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Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis?

Last November, Japan’s Environment Ministry issued a stark warning: the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces every year will rise from 10,000 to 800,000 tons by 2040, and the nation has no plan for safely disposing of it.

Neither does California, a world leader in deploying solar panels. Only Europe requires solar panel makers to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives.

All of which begs the question: just how big of a problem is solar waste?

Environmental Progress investigated the problem to see how the problem compared to the much more high-profile issue of nuclear waste.

We found:

  • Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.
  • If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).
  • In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.
Waste Production per TWh.001.jpeg

The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves, which contain similar heavy metals and toxins as other electronics, such as computers and smartphones.

To make these calculations, EP estimated the total number of operational solar panels in 2016 and assumed they would all be retired in 25 years — the average lifespan of a solar panel. EP then estimated the total amount of spent nuclear fuel assemblies that would be generated over a 25 year period. EP then divided both estimates by the quantity of electricity they produced to come up with the waste per unit of energy measure.

While nuclear waste is contained in heavy drums and regularly monitored, solar waste outside of Europe today ends up in the larger global stream of electronic waste.

Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, which can damage the nervous system, as well as chromium and cadmium, known carcinogens. All three are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.

The deployment of solar has increased significantly in recent years in response to government subsidies and mandates. Global installed capacity more than doubled between 2012 and 2015.

In 2016, solar provided 1.3% of the world’s electricity, with 301 GW installed. Nuclear reactors provided 10% of the world’s electricity in the same year.

A recent report found that it would take 19 years for Toshiba Environmental Solutions to finish recycling all of the solar waste Japan produced by 2020. By 2034, the annual waste production will be 70 – 80 times larger than that of 2020.

Methodological notes:

  • “Solar” in this analysis exclusively refers to solar photovoltaic.
  • For the analysis, EP assumed that each solar panel would last 25 years
  • EP estimated that a typical 1 GW nuclear reactor produces 27 tonnes of waste annually.

By Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson

Jemin Desai is an EP Fellow and a student at UC Berkeley. Mark Nelson is EP Senior Researcher. 

Mark Nelson's picture

Thank Mark for the Post!

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Discussions

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on June 28, 2017

This isn’t even serious. We recycle steel, aluminum, motherboards, plastics, and somehow used solar panel are going to just pile up…

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on June 28, 2017

IBM figured out how to recycle the waste so you could reuse the metals and the silicon. There was at least one other group working on it in the US as well. It isn’t an unexpected issue. Nor is it impossible to solve.

We still haven’t figured out what to do with nuclear waste besides put it in a dump to leave for future generations to deal with. Even if solar panels are terrible. I would rather run my backhoe into a pile a solar panels that were left from a previous generation, then a 55 gallon drum of nuclear waste.

John Cooper's picture
John Cooper on June 29, 2017

The short answer to your title question re “solar waste” is easy. “No, we are not.”

Any production cycle has a waste stream, and the challenge is to plan for recycling and re-use to address a sustainable strategy. First, solar waste is deferred (panel lifecycles suggest no considerable waste for another 20 years) and at that point, recycling and management are entirely feasible. Second, solar waste is relatively manageable – we have ample time to address a strategy, more like an entire new industry will make use of these materials. Heck, we could just borrow what we have learned in managing other electronic waste. There’s an idea.

Nuclear waste, on the other hand, regardless of volume, is deadly, pernicious, and a thorny problem. And its danger doesn’t go away, it lasts forever. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, down through the ages. At best it may be used for other nukes, but they are a dying breed, no pun intended. Then there are terrorists who would love to get some waste to use radioactivity as a weapon – to make a dirty bomb. And waste is just the beginning of a litany of problems associated with nuclear, beginning with siting, moving on to liability, and competitive dispatch of base load, then there’s stranded investment, etc., etc.

Your research is simplistic at best, better to compare similar tech, like automobiles or computers, and diagram constructive approaches to waste management. I’d like to read that. To assume solar waste just piles up is a specious argument. And to compare solar waste to nuclear waste? Dead end argument, why bother?

In summary re Solar vs Nuclear waste? Solar – deferred, manageable – safe. Nuclear – immediate, deadly, unmanageable – dangerous. In this waste debate, its quality more than quantity, safe vs dangerous. And that’s how we get to a quick “No.”

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on June 29, 2017
Sébastien Yaouanc's picture
Sébastien Yaouanc on June 30, 2017

No solution, No problem !

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on June 30, 2017

Nuclear waste, on the other hand, regardless of volume, is deadly, pernicious, and a thorny problem.

I swear, this is the same old propaganda from a new account.  Did Bas’s employer hire more trolls?

To put it bluntly, most “nuclear waste” is far less noxious than what goes into your municipal landfill.  The only reason anyone rates low-level waste “dangerous” is because of scientific fraud in the designation of what radiation exposure does and does not constitute a hazard.  If low-level radiation was a danger, airline crews would be at massively higher risk than the general public.  The only thing they have at elevated rates is skin cancer… from free travel that lets them spend their vacations on UV-drenched beaches.

If we bothered to use “high-level waste” properly we could get a lot of benefit out of it.  Cs-137 in particular would be great for eliminating infectious bacteria from food.  All we’d have to do is seal packages and then irradiate them to kill off possible pathogens.

The half-life of plutonium and other transuranics is irrelevant.  They’re fuel which ought to be recycled and used up.

And its danger doesn’t go away, it lasts forever.

Radioactivity is the very PROCESS of the radioisotopes going away.  How can you write such nonsense with a straight face?

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on June 30, 2017

The point is valid (I know the illustration was incorrect.) Even Thorkil’s link/essay agrees saying “We don’t have a good solution. Leave it for the next generation to deal with” which has been going on for 60 years.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on June 30, 2017

Nuclear waste, on the other hand, regardless of volume, is deadly, pernicious, and a thorny problem.

I swear, this is the same old propaganda from a new account.  Did Bas’s employer hire more trolls?

To put it bluntly, most low-level “nuclear waste” is far less noxious than what goes into your municipal landfill.  The only reason anyone rates low-level waste “dangerous” is because of scientific fraud in the designation of what radiation exposure does and does not constitute a hazard.  If low-level radiation was a danger, airline crews would be at massively higher risk than the general public.  The only thing they have at elevated rates is skin cancer… from free travel that lets them spend their vacations on UV-drenched beaches.

If we bothered to use “high-level waste” properly we could get a lot of benefit out of it.  Cs-137 in particular would be great for eliminating infectious bacteria from food.  All we’d have to do is seal packages and then irradiate them to kill off possible pathogens.

The half-life of plutonium and other transuranics is irrelevant.  They’re fuel which ought to be recycled and used up.

And its danger doesn’t go away, it lasts forever.

Radioactivity is the very PROCESS of the radioisotopes going away all by themselves.  How can you write such nonsense with a straight face?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on July 1, 2017

Waiting 60 years allows 3/4 of all the Sr-90 and Cs-137 to simply go away.

Radioisotopes have time limits; toxic heavy metals like the cadmium and arsenic used in PV panels are forever.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on July 4, 2017

its danger doesn’t go away, it lasts forever

Danger from nuclear waste goes away – sometimes slowly and sometimes very quick.
Sorry, but I have to repeat some elementary knowledge about physics.

The half-life
A common misconception is that the longer the half-life of a radioactive material is, the more dangerous it is.
It is true that it will continue to radiate in much longer time.
But it also means that the radiation will be spread over a correspondingly long time.
Thus, it is fraud when, again and again, we hear talk of a substance that will be highly radioactive for a long time.
It will either be with a high level of radioactivity or it can be radioactive for a long time.
But not both.
For example, the common isotope of the element thorium has a half-life of 14 billion years.
This is about as long as the universe has existed since it started in the Big Bang, also about 14 billion years ago.
This effectively means that Thorium can not be considered as radioactive. It is even used for shielding against radiation.
Additionally, it may be mentioned that the much talked about plutonium isotope, that can be used in nuclear reactors and for nuclear weapons, has a half-life at 24,000 years, so that the radiation is spread over a very long period and therefore is not particularly dangerous right “now and here”.
In return, the radioactive iodine-131 has a short but hectic process and thus is a serious danger “here and now “, but not in the long term. Fortunately, early action with iodine tablets almost eliminates the risk.
In addition, thyroid cancer can be treated successfully.

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