Looming Solar Panel Waste Tsunami Reveals Dark Side of Renewables: Expert

By Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'
July 6, 2021 Updated: July 6, 2021

Environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger told NTD’s “The Nation Speaks” that the economics of solar panel production, deployment, and recycling shows that the technology has a “toxic” and “dangerous” dimension while its advocacy is driven by ideological leanings, rather than sound science.

“We’ve been in a sort of hypnotic trance,” Shellenberger said, referring to what he characterized as the misguided belief that solar power is an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional forms of power generation like nuclear.

“It’s a spiritual pursuit,” he added. “There’s the idea that … we’ll protect the natural environment by being dependent on natural energy flows like sunlight. It’s not a scientific view. It actually is worse for the environment.”

A recent Harvard Business Review study concluded that solar panels are being replaced faster than expected due to various economic incentives, warning of a rising mountain of solar panel trash “of existentially damaging proportions” unless incentives are adopted to drive down the high costs of recycling.

“Economic incentives are rapidly aligning to encourage customers to trade their existing panels for newer, cheaper, more efficient models. In an industry where circularity solutions such as recycling remain woefully inadequate, the sheer volume of discarded panels will soon pose a risk of existentially damaging proportions,” the study states.

The study cites estimates by Garvin Heath, senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who told PV Magazine that it costs $20 to $30 to recycle a panel versus $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill. Harvard Business Review concluded that the bright promise of more widespread adoption of solar energy as an environmentally friendly alternative “would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.”

Asked about the study, Shellenberger confirmed the high recycling costs, but noted that they’re but one part of the end-of-life burden of solar. The panels contain heavy metals, like lead, which can be released as a toxic cloud if the panels shatter during disposal.

“It’s hazardous waste,” he said. “Airelized lead is not something that we’ve allowed people to be exposed to for over half a century because we know it causes brain damage. So it’s as dangerous as lead paint, it’s as dangerous as all of the lead-based materials that society has basically phased out until now.”

“Now we know that this consumer product that people thought was somehow clean, in harmony with nature, really is … actually quite toxic. And there’s just a lot of it,” Shellenberger said.

Adding to the volume of solar waste is the fact that panels degrade faster than previously thought.

“They degrade about 1 percent a year, not a half a percent a year,” Schellenberger said. “And so that means that people have an incentive to change them more quickly.”

“There was this romantic idea that you would get solar panels and you would install them once and then you would never have to do anything again. We now know that people re-install them every 10 years or so,” he said, adding that, by contrast, nuclear power plants can run for around 80 years.

“So you’re talking about a huge difference and a huge increase in the amount of materials and the amount of waste,” he said, adding that his own calculations showed that solar panels produce 200 to 300 times more hazardous waste than the high-level waste that comes out of nuclear power plants, “which is the maybe the most feared waste.”

“I think it comes from a kind of a deeply romantic and very ideological place, a very idealized imagination,” he said of the push for adoption of solar.

Tom Ozimek
Tom Ozimek
Reporter
Tom Ozimek has a broad background in journalism, deposit insurance, marketing and communications, and adult education. The best writing advice he's ever heard is from Roy Peter Clark: 'Hit your target' and 'leave the best for last.'