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How Green Really Are Solar Panels?

Global warming is a huge issue in today's world with energy being a major contributor. One of the go-to green energy solutions is the solar PV technology. You can easily install one in your home, help 'solve' the climate problem, and get cool cash from the excess electricity generated.

But how green really are solar PVs?

Let's examine this question from these two angles:

  • raw materials

  • disposal

Raw Materials

Solar PVs are made using minerals like cadmium, nickel, and silver. Like crude oil, these materials are finite resources meaning they won't last forever so, there is a likelihood of demand outweighing supply in the future. Beyond this, however, is the major issue of how these minerals are being mined. Mining is a very polluting activity that generates toxic wastes and causes significant damage to the environment - soil erosion, harm to biodiversity... Though the solar PV has a low carbon footprint, these environmental impacts that have to be mitigated.


One prevailing question is: where do the panels end up after use?

A landfill is not an option because solar panels contain impurities like glass and toxic materials that can leach into the soil. Recycling is a better alternative but it can be quite expensive and the process can be difficult for electrical waste. Yet, if this is not put in place, there will be 60 million tons of solar panels waste by 2050... shiverrrssss.

Source: GreenMatch

Enforcement and Accountability

For me, this is the way forward. Energy laws or should I say standards have to be enacted specifically for solar PVs - to guide their production (including mining practices), use, and disposal. Many companies are already in on to solar energy production, we just need to make sure they do things right.

For example, PV producers are discouraged from recycling because it is not economical, so it has to be mandated since recycling does not alleviate the disposal problem alone, it also reduces the need for raw materials.

Recycling does not alleviate the disposal problem alone, it also reduces the need for raw materials.

Thinking further, monitoring is key. We currently have industry reports on the global installed capacities of solar PVs, but, we need to include sustainability indicators in those reports too. These would hold producers accountable, give insight into how green solar PVs really are, as well as what progress we are making to ensure we are minimizing environmental (and social) impact as much as possible, and what remedial steps are required. For example, to further avert costs, thousands of solar PV wastes may be falsely declared as second-hand goods to developing countries, this has to be monitored.

What are your thoughts?

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