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What to do with all this ‘clean’ energy waste...

23rd August 2022
Sam Holland

In this opinion piece, Sam Holland discusses some of the electronic waste concerns that solar energy panels are bringing to the forefront, while also considering the 'bright' side...

One of the best parts of working as an editor of an electronics publication is that you hear about some of the exciting innovation that is being born out of necessity. Whatever your feelings on climate change are, the fact is that fossil fuels won’t last forever and this makes the latest energy generation technology shine all the brighter. One of the core examples of such technology is of course solar energy generation – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own waste problems.

It is an unfortunate fact that the problem of avoiding energy waste doesn’t end with the avoidance of fossil fuels. In fact, it would be outright naive to think that anyone has a truly renewable and sustainable energy generator the moment that they install solar panels on the roof of their home. As we cover on Electronic Specifier regularly, electronic waste (e-waste) is a core industry concern, and solar panels, particularly due to their toxic construction materials, are no different. So the current engineering behind them is flawed at the very materials level, and authorities on their lifespans maintain that they are destined to fail after 25 to 30 years.

Nevertheless, we are now at a crossroads: the energy technologies that people were proudly installing back in the late ’80s will have been operating for well over thirty years by now. Even putting aside the decades-old solar panels that have been laid to waste already, how much longer will those still-functional panels be standing? And that is a question put to a long-gone generation of solar energy solutions: we will also need to ask the same question in the 2050s when the newcomers of today have had their solar panels for around thirty years or more.

According to IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), by 2050 there may be 78 million tonnes of raw materials left over from the by-then-defunct solar panels of today. But there is still some good news.

The ‘bright’ side to the enormous amount of e-waste that plagues both our present and our future relates to the 'circular economy': while those raw materials may not be going anywhere, consider the fact that this may be a double-edged sword. Right now there is a growing – and much-needed – market for so-called electronic waste recycling (because is it really waste if you can use it again?). Thankfully, companies like SOLARCYCLE and First Solar are specialists in carrying out the retiring and repurposing of old solar panels, particularly in view of the valuable metals that they hold (such as silver, silicon, and aluminium).

On top of this, the design of solar panels, and our increasing knowledge of how they can enjoy a ‘second life’ after their initial decommissioning, also suggest that the initial lifespan of modern solar panels may even last as long as 50 years. This is a phenomenal improvement from the older-generation models that have only been made to last three decades at a push. What is better news still is the fact that we are already seeing that those experts of decades past – the ones who predicted that the solar panels of the late '80s would last around thirty years – may be pleasantly surprised today. Many of those panels are in fact fully functional right now (but the clock is ticking...).

All of this suggests that solar power engineers and manufacturers can at least buy us some time while the market for e-waste recycling and the repurposing of second-life energy storage solutions continue to make their mark.

Put simply, if nothing else, the industry is already learning just some of the ways to make the best of a bad situation!

Check out more alternative energy stories at our Eco Innovation page. You can also visit our LinkedIn page here.

Plus, Electronic Specifier's sister publication, IoT Insider, has plenty of other electronics stories.

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