Solar Panels & the Environment

Solar Panels & the Environment


Solar energy has proven to be an efficient source of clean and renewable energy. It’s helping create jobs and drive economic activity throughout North Carolina. Solar technologies have become dramatically less expensive over the past 40 years. The price of obtaining one watt of energy from a solar panel dropped from $77.67 in 1977 to $0.61 today, a 99.21% price reduction. Efficiency at its finest.

Though solar energy has numerous benefits and is continuing to see advances with the discovery of new, innovative technologies, myths still remain.

One popular myth is that decommissioned solar panels have a negative impact on the environment. This is simply not true. When properly disposed of, photovoltaic solar panels don’t pose a threat to the environment. Their core makeup is of silicon-based products. Throughout the production process, the silicon comes into contact with other chemicals. Yes, some of these chemicals are not the most environmentally friendly, but strict regulations from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) ensure that potential waste is being handled properly.

The materials used are no more harmful than those used in common household objects that need to be disposed of properly, such as motor oil, electronics, paint, batteries, light bulbs, and smoke detectors.

These chemicals, similar to those used in the general semiconductor industry, include hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and acetone. While these chemicals are used in the creation of the panels themselves, it’s happening in a controlled environment, and as long as the panel is properly disposed of after its lifespan has expired, these chemicals don’t pose a threat to the environment.

Another myth is that solar farms are destroying North Carolina’s precious farmland. This is incorrect on multiple accounts.

Most utility-scale solar farms are located on farmland. However, even after these solar farms are decommissioned, the land can still produce crops. The land remains healthy and farmable, so NC farmers can pass on their land for future generations to farm.

Another misconception about solar energy in our state is that utility-scale solar farms consume too much land. The truth is quite the contrary. Solar farms account for roughly .08% of North Carolina’s farmland. That’s less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s total farmland.

Incentive to Recycle

Manufacturers have a strong financial incentive to ensure that these highly valuable and often rare materials are recycled rather than thrown away. Photovoltaic panel producers can recycle certain materials from decommissioned systems, making future production more efficient and cost-effective. At this point in the timeline of solar, there are a few companies solely devoted to recycling old solar energy systems.

So why isn’t there an abundance of photovoltaic recycling facilities available to corporations and residential consumers alike? The answer lies in timing and market demand.

Solar panels have an average lifespan of 30 years. Even after 25 years of operation, high-quality solar panels will still be operating at almost 90% efficiency. This means that solar energy systems installed in the ‘90s are still functioning at a high capacity.

The solar boom really hit in the early 2000s. At this point, most of the solar installations across the world are still functioning at 100% capacity and haven’t been decommissioned. They may be around well into 2030 without needing to be replaced or removed. Because of this, the demand for companies to recycle these energy systems has been low.

However, with the massive global shift toward clean and renewable energy, specifically solar, companies will be popping up left and right over the next 15-20 years to cash in on this lucrative business opportunity to properly dispose of photovoltaic panels.

Globally installed PV capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500GW by 2050. With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector. This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now,” said International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) director-general Adnan Z Amin.

It’s estimated that 90% of the panels themselves can be recycled, and just like other areas of solar, including research, development, production and installation, the removal and recycling of solar panels will create jobs for the state and country. It’s only a matter of time before companies start to capitalize on this lucrative business opportunity.

The bottom line is that solar energy and North Carolina’s farmland work better together.

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