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Agency works toward circular future for solar panels

Press Coverage
January 2, 2024
Sustainable Biz

Solar power is one of Canada’s fastest growing energy sources, recording an almost 26 per cent increase in 2022. But the most likely final destination for a solar panel right now is a landfill, presenting a sustainability contradiction.

It is an issue of increasing importance to the industry as it rapidly expands globally. The question of waste could become a major problem when a large number of solar panels are retired. Canada could create 800,000 tonnes of expired solar panel waste by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Recycling is offered as a solution, but recycling rates for solar panels are low and uncertainties about the toxic materials contained in the panels have led to apprehension.

To counter what he calls myths and misinformation about solar panels, Carson Fong, a program manager at the Calgary-based non-profit Business Renewables Centre Canada, argues that solar panels are relatively safe and highlights the Canadian innovators attempting to find the best ways to recycle them.

“There is a real potential to do some of this recycling locally,” Fong said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada. “Economic and environmental drivers can create some of this locally in Canada. Folks shouldn’t be concerned about this looming landfill issue with solar panels that you often hear about, because there’s real economic incentive and players involved now to make some of this recycling a reality.”

A circular economy for solar panels

One risk identified for solar panel recycling is the presence of hazardous metals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists lead and cadmium as common metals in the semiconductors and solder. Those toxins could leach out into the environment, posing a threat to health and ecosystems.

Fong thinks otherwise.

He cites research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that found almost 100 per cent of the global solar panel market contains crystalline silicon or cadmium telluride panels, not the commonly-referenced arsenic, gallium and germanium. Trace amounts of lead do exist, however, which he said cannot be overlooked.

When compared to coal, the solid waste per megawatt-hour produced by solar energy is over 50 times lower, according to another study cited by Fong.

But recycling rates for solar panels are a problem. Approximately 90 per cent of end-of-life solar panels are trashed and not broken down for reuse.

Fong said it does not have to be this way.

“A lot of the efforts right now in taking in the solar panels after they’ve been used on the grid is repurposing them,” he said. “A lot of the time they’re taken off the solar farm not because they’re broken, but because developers are repowering their farms, replacing the modules with newer, more efficient, more productive modules.”

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