Solar Energy: Eclipsing the earth’s future?

Governments across the world are aggressively adopting solar energy as the resource of the future. But given the harmful side effects of the technology in the form of waste and the practices adopted by traders, there is a need for stringent regulation of industry.

  • IRENA notes that of the myriad forms of renewable energy, solar energy continued to lead capacity expansion, with an increase of 98 GW, growing 20% year-on-year.
  • This rapid expansion, by 2050, global solar power generation may reach 8,500 GW, according to the findings of IRENA, as the world looks for sustainable energy options.
  • However, evidence suggests that solar industry is not as clean as it is perceived. Land degradation, loss of flora & fauna, generation of humongous numbers of toxic waste are some of the issues associated with it.
  • To tackle this situation, the solar industry needs to be regulated as far as disposal of e-waste and practices in solar trade are concerned. At the same time, innovative solutions like using the land allocated for solar farms for horticulture can ensure that the land is being utilised.


Image Credit: Look4ward

That the earth is reeling under the heat of global warming and there is a need to shift to a more sustainable way of life that cuts down on the emission of toxic gases is now an internationally known fact. To this end, countries all across the world have been channelising their efforts to switch to cleaner sources of energy. According to the Renewable Capacity Highlights, 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), global renewable generation capacity amounted to 2,537 GW at the end of 2019, . Hydro energy (1,190 GW) accounted for the largest share of the global total, followed by wind (623 GW) and solar energy (586 GW). IRENA notes that of the myriad forms of renewable energy, solar energy continued to lead capacity expansion, with an increase of 98 GW, growing 20% year-on-year.

Source : IRENA: Renewable capacity highlights (in GW)

Within the capacity added in the solar sector worldwide in 2019, Asia continued to dominate global solar capacity expansion with a 56 GW increase (about 60% of the total in 2019), albeit lower than in 2018. China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam were the leaders in solar capacity addition in this continent. Other notable increases were in the US, Australia, Ukraine, Germany, Spain, Ukraine and Viet Nam. IRENA projects that going by this rapid expansion, global solar power generation may reach 8,500 GW by 2050. Notably, India is also providing incentives for solar PV makers looking to exit China in the post-COVID scenario.

Given these data points and general debates around solar energy, there seems to be a general consensus that solar energy is the ‘clear protagonist’ on the global energy stage at the moment. But hold your horses, for there is a strong twist in the tale! And you can go wrong with solar energy too.

Source : Deloitte-Global Renewable Energy Trends

How ‘clean’ is the solar industry?

One of the major problems with using solar energy is land degradation. According to estimates, total land area requirements vary between 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt for utility-scale PV systems and between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt in case of large-scale solar thermal technology systems. Unfortunately, this land cannot be put to other uses such as agriculture. In a developing country like India where agriculture constitutes 44% of the overall employment, there are 1.3 billion mouths to feed and 86.1% farmers hold small and marginal land holdings, this could be a serious case of conflicting priorities.

Another related issue with solar farms is that they destroy the habitat for the local fauna and flora, particularly birds. According to a study, by the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University, solar panels built in undeveloped natural areas crowd out wildlife and destroy their habitat. Further, a number of birds are known to have lost their lives due to the “lake effect” This implies that large solar fields can fool birds into changing flight direction, sometimes during migration,, because they appear to be lakes from a distance. Many water birds looking for water have been killed at these large solar sites, indicating that they fly to solar fields and realize too late in their descent that they are solar panels, not water.

In addition to the above challenges, the PV cell manufacturing process entails a very big concern – it produces numerous hazardous materials used to clean and purify the semiconductor surface. These include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride. For example, arsenic compounds can lead to lung cancer while cadmium compounds have the potential to cause cancer in the kidney. Lead, too, has harmful impact on human health and its continuous contact can have an impact on CNS, GI, blood, kidney and reproductive system. At the same time, the use of water used to clean the cells and concentrators or to cool the turbine generators will be impacted. This can consequently affect the natural ecosystems that use those resources.

Impact of toxic materials produced by PV cells on human health

Material Health effects
Arsine Blood, kidney
Arsenic compounds Cancer, lung
Cadmium compounds Cancer, kidney
Carbon tetrachloride Liver, cancer, greenhouse gas
Chloro-silanes Irritant
Diborane CNS, pulmonary
Germane Blood, CNS, kidney
Hydrogen Fire hazard
Hydrogen fluoride Irritant, burns, bone, teeth
Hydrogen selenide Irritant, GI, flammable
Hydrogen sulfide Irritant, CNS, flammable
Indium compounds Pulmonary, bone, GI
Lead CNS, GI, blood, kidney, reproductive
Nitric acid Irritant, Corrosive
Phosphine Irritant, CNS, GI, flammable

A recent study notes that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. For the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years starting 2016, if nuclear waste was stacked on two football fields, it would go upto the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters). Solar waste, on the other hand, would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km)!

By 2050, the use of PV cells has the potential to create up to 78 million tonnes of PV panel waste across the globe according to IRENA projections. Asia is expected to be the highest source for generation of this waste, with China, Japan and India being the largest contributors. This is followed by Europe, especially, Germany, Italy and France. 

The problem is that not only is this e-waste being generated at such a rapid pace, it is also being traded widely across the globe. Firms that may advertise themselves as “solar panel recyclers” are actually selling panels to secondary markets in nations with less developed waste disposal systems. First World companies find it tough to recycle PV panels due to the high labour cost & low demand for scrap. A report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) suggests that somewhere between 60-90% of electronic waste is illegally traded and dumped into poor nations. Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China have emerged as the primary e-waste destinations.

Source : IRENA: End of life management solar photovoltiac panels

A few shades better!

Going ahead, it is clear that solar panels have their own set of challenges. While they are said to be a great source of renewable energy, they come with serious costs. To tackle this situation, the solar industry needs to be regulated. The EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive mandates all member states to implement a regulation for setting up tracking, collection and waste treatment mechanisms. Consequently, producers are responsible for tracking and financing the management of their waste streams. Further, EU’s Waste Framework, 2008, lays down processes and minimum standards for treatment of specific types of e-waste including PV modules.

As far as using the land in solar farms is concerned, farmers in Minnesota have developed a potentially scalable option. They use the farm as home for bee hives, thereby generating honey. Adding plants to solar farms, reduces carbon emissions and fosters food security. Further, it can also can help improve the health of pollinators, which are threatened by habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, poor nutrition, disease, decreased genetic diversity and a host of other factors.

Another idea is to impose a fee on solar panel purchases that incorporates the cost of safely removing, recycling or storing solar panel waste. A part of this fee can be channelized to the creation of a federal disposal and decommissioning fund. These funds not only fix the producer’s responsibility in dealing with this e-waste, but are bound to last long after solar manufacturers go bankrupt.

Lastly, global bodies such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Partnership for Waste Management should rigorously monitor e-waste shipments. They should encourage nations importing used solar panels into secondary markets to form legislation around imposing a fee to cover the cost of recycling or long-term management.

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