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Power Science

Study Claims Discarded Solar Panels Create More Toxic Waste Than Nuclear Plants (nationalreview.com) 376

Templer421 shares an article from National Review: A new study by Environmental Progress warns that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat. The Berkeley-based group found that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear-power plants. Discarded solar panels, which contain dangerous elements such as lead, chromium, and cadmium, are piling up around the world, and there's been little done to mitigate their potential danger to the environment. "We talk a lot about the dangers of nuclear waste, but that waste is carefully monitored, regulated, and disposed of," says Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, a nonprofit that advocates for the use of nuclear energy. "But we had no idea there would be so many panels -- an enormous amount -- that could cause this much ecological damage." Solar panels are considered a form of toxic, hazardous electronic or "e-waste," and according to EP researchers Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson, scavengers in developing countries like India and China often "burn the e-waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled."
A spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association argues that the study is incorrect, and that in fact solar panels are "mainly made up of easy-to-recycle materials that can be successfully recovered and reused at the end of their useful life."
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Study Claims Discarded Solar Panels Create More Toxic Waste Than Nuclear Plants

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  • You don't say (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 01, 2017 @12:48PM (#54725293)

    Huh, something distributed across a wide area for which proper recycling facilities may or may not exist is more problematic than something that is concentrated, isolated, and sealed off? Gee, next you'll be telling me that coal smog is also worse than nuclear.

    Sarcasm aside, I don't think this is necessarily an argument against solar per se, so much as it is that we need to consider the whole life cycle, from mining and production to reprocessing, when it comes to solar. Nuclear gets so much scrutiny, while it seems like a lot of people assume that solar is without environmental cost. This is clearly not the case. In the rush to promote solar and wind over the nuclear power that we should have been running years ago (thanks for the climate change, you greenie assholes), it seems like the entirety of the systems are not often considered, like we do with nuclear.

    • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

      FTS:
      "a nonprofit that advocates for the use of nuclear energy. "
      So, not biased then, I'm sure they didn't go looking for 30 years old technology in a cherry picking manner. Never mind that 30 years ago, hardly anyone had solar, most solar isn't even installed yet, it'll be installed in the next couple of decades as the price continues to plummet and as battery storage finally becomes affordable which is happening right now.

      Article and summary are pure flame bait.

  • TL;DR ... (Score:2, Insightful)

    ... stopped at:

    ... a nonprofit that advocates for the use of nuclear energy ...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Since you didn't spend more than two seconds on the topic, let's explore:

      Are you against nuclear energy?

      Are you against nonprofits?

      Are you against nonprofits that advocate for nuclear energy?

      Or is there a brain tumor that is causing you to spend no time thinking about an issue before commenting?

      My guess - you stopped because your Facebook app let you know someone liked your post on Jello and you couldn't be bothered to read an article to advance your knowledge.

  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:01PM (#54725341)

    The "300 times more toxic waste than nuclear power" requires considering one kilogram of solar panel as being toxic waste equivalent to one kilogram of spent reactor fuel. This is a preposterous comparison.

    Furthermore it treats all solar panels as being as being the same source of hazard. Cadmium telluride panels are a special concern for disposal, but they are 2.5% of the global market and only used in special situations, whereas 95% of production is silicon panel and not toxic at all.

    The disposal of solar panels is a valid concern that must be addressed, like the disposal of all electronics, and solid waste generally, but this framing is wildly deceptive.

    • by El Cubano ( 631386 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:32PM (#54725483)

      The "300 times more toxic waste than nuclear power" requires considering one kilogram of solar panel as being toxic waste equivalent to one kilogram of spent reactor fuel. This is a preposterous comparison.

      It is preposterous. Good thing that is not what they compared. From the article:

      To make these calculations, EP estimated the total number of operational solar panels in 2016 and assumed they would all be retired in 25 years â" the average lifespan of a solar panel. EP then estimated the total amount of spent nuclear fuel assemblies that would be generated over a 25 year period. EP then divided both estimates by the quantity of electricity they produced to come up with the waste per unit of energy measure.

      So, you say that they equated 1kg of solar panel to 1kg of nuclear fuel. They say they equated the solar panels it took to create x GW of electricity to the amount of nuclear fuel it took to create y GW of electricity. Based on what their stated methodology, it would work out to something like "300 kg of nuclear fuel can be used to generated 300 GW of electricity over 25 years, but 300 kg of solar panels can only be used to generate 1 GW of electricity over 25 years." Or something like that.

      Now, you could argue that the analysis was incomplete because it does not account for the impact refining the nuclear fuel or manufacturing the solar panels, building the reactors, or installing/maintaining the solar panels. You could even argue that their methodology for estimating quantities of solar panels and nuclear fuel was flawed or that they don't account for the differing impact of handling spent nuclear fuel versus old solar panels (I can stack old panels out in the open, but that is not a good idea with nuclear fuel). But those are different matters altogether.

      • by religionofpeas ( 4511805 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:47PM (#54725583)

        "300 kg of nuclear fuel can be used to generated 300 GW of electricity over 25 years, but 300 kg of solar panels can only be used to generate 1 GW of electricity over 25 years."

        It still equates 1 kg of nuclear waste with 1 kg of solar panel waste in terms of environmental impact. That's crazy, since most of the solar panel waste is from the glass front panel and the frame, which are harmless materials.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gweihir ( 88907 )

          That is pretty funny, as 1kg of burnt nuclear fuel is enough to make a city like New York uninhabitable for a few 1000 years, while 300kg of old solar panels are pretty harmless as all the "bad" metals are fused in the silicon and it is minuscule amounts in addition. Unless you, you know, put them in a river for the water to grind down over a few decades, that is exactly where these metals will stay.

          • Well, while I agree there are problems with the article, in fairness 1kg of "spent" nuclear fuel won't magically develop wings and spread it self out to make a city the size of New York uninhabitable either. (And spent fuel isn't that [wikipedia.org] dangerous to begin with. )

            If you leave it alone, it will pretty much leave you alone as well. And a 1kg cube of spent fuel just sitting there won't be that dangerous. We store them in pools in our plants for the shortest lived, most active daughters to decay before sending t

      • It is still wrong, because they only compare actual nuclear fuel as in Uranium. Not the whole rods, that are much larger. Not the control rods that have to be replaced regularly because they get irradiated.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        assumed they would all be retired in 25 years Ã" the average lifespan

        Odd assumption considering that the standard warranty is 25 years, with quality brands like Sharp and LG now at 30 years.

        The panels are pretty simple devices really. They just need to be sealed properly and made of reasonably durable materials, and fortunately we have figured out how to make building materials that last more than 30 years quite reliably.

        Oh, and of course you have to add in the reduction in wear on the roof.

        • by emj ( 15659 )

          assumed they would all be retired in 25 years Ã" the average lifespan

          Odd assumption considering that the standard warranty is 25 years, with quality brands like Sharp and LG now at 30 years.

          The solar panels we bought 30 years ago still give us enough power to warrant being mounted on our roof, I have no idea what the warranty was then or how the quality has changed since then..

          • Solar panels typically degrade at 0.5% per year from their original rated power. By their nature, they are exposed to solar UV all their lives. The high energy photons damage the relatively thin semiconductor junction layers in the cell. Other parts of the panel, like the aluminum frame, are likely to degrade faster than the cells themselves, and once the panel is no longer weather-tight, they can fail fairly fast. But then, so do houses, once the roof isn't weather-tight any more.

            • Other parts of the panel, like the aluminum frame, are likely to degrade faster than the cells themselves, and once the panel is no longer weather-tight, they can fail fairly fast.

              The aluminum frame will outlast the panel by far if it's actually Aluminum. Unfortunately, most frames I've seen have used steel screws. They need to be welded or riveted. Hopefully that's how it's done now. Aluminum forms a protective oxide layer, which is why it lasts so long in the elements. But if you mix it with steel, you'll get galvanic corrosion. You can use tin or zinc as an intermediate layer to prevent it, but that never works perfectly.

    • CdTe panels are 5.1% of the global market [wikipedia.org] and growing rapidly.
  • by LeftCoastThinker ( 4697521 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:06PM (#54725371)

    While solar panels do pollute a little if not properly disposed of, as far as I know, lead, cadmium and chromium are all pretty easy to recover by melting down the panels. If you are stupid enough to burn plastic, you get what you get, but as a kid we burned plastic from time to time and we didn't suffer any ill effects.

    The problem with these articles is they assume the worst case for the disposal of panels while assuming the best case for nuclear waste. It is relatively trivial to recycle lead, cadmium and chromium into new solar panels, and they require no more than respirators and proper gloves and ventilation/filtration to work with, whereas spent nuclear fuel is quite difficult and dangerous to work with and there is no real east way to recycle spent nuclear waste. Alternatively, you could bury the worlds entire supply of solar panels in a landfill and it would be pretty harmless, assuming the landfill was modern and properly lined and isolated from the ground water (the lead, cadmium and other heavy metals are usually laminated between layers of glass, so even breaking the panels only exposes a small fraction of the total heavy metal content).

    As first world societies, if we are really concerned for the environment, we should slap a recycle fee onto every panel sold and then require that they be recycled in a first world country with felony prison time for exporting un-recycled e-waste to the third world (we already do this more or less for many other things that need to be recycled).

    • The problem with these articles is they are written by a "think tank" that will misrepresent and lie in order to promote a predetermined point of view.

      FTFY.

      We all need to be aware that big money interests are using every means at their disposal, including fake think tanks, to fool the public into supporting them. This is just another example of that. In this case, the bias and factual misrepresentation are quite obvious for anyone who is slightly skeptical, but still, many people will be fooled.

    • While solar panels do pollute a little if not properly disposed of, as far as I know, lead, cadmium and chromium are all pretty easy to recover by melting down the panels.

      Note, by the by, that melting down nuclear fuel rods isn't actually that difficult either. Or wouldn't be if not for the NIMBY's who wet themselves when they hear the word "nuclear". Note that we were doing it in 1945 with what passed for technology at the time....

      And you might want to be aware, when considering the long half-life of so

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      If you are stupid enough to burn plastic, you get what you get, but as a kid we burned plastic from time to time and we didn't suffer any ill effects.

      One extra cancer at age 50 out of a hundred home-alone firebrand toddlers cosplaying Legoland Nero counts as an "ill effect" in my ledger.

    • whereas spent nuclear fuel is quite difficult and dangerous to work with and there is no real east way to recycle spent nuclear waste.
      Well, it usually is recycled into anti tank rounds for the A10 Gatling gun, or anti tank ammunition for hu hom, tanks.
      In Germany we use Wolfram instead.

  • Push study. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gurps_npc ( 621217 )

    Read it. Makes lots of really bad assumptions, all designed to push a specific political agenda.

    1) Assumes they have a really short lifespan. Basically they are using manufacturer's estimated lifespan of 25 years, when in truth, these things do not stop working. No moving parts, hermetically sealed so no water, insects, or even air gets in, low electrical voltage. The most common cause of destruction is something hitting them - lightning bolts, hail, baseballs. They can theoretically last for centur

    • Re:Push study. (Score:5, Informative)

      by DRJlaw ( 946416 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:16PM (#54725409)

      NASA's Voyagers 1 and 2 are both going strong after 37 years exposure to micrometeorites in space.

      Chalk up an own goal! Voyagers 1 and 2 are powered by RTGs [nasa.gov], not solar panels. Nothing that is destined to operate much beyond Mars orbit is powered by solar panels. Inverse square law of solar radiation intensity and all.

      And with that your credibility is gone. Thank you for playing the "I don't know what I'm talking about but will push my agenda anyway" game.

      • And with that your credibility is gone.

        And with that is yours. You have just now decided to discredit statements based entirely on the source without analysis of the statement itself. Just because he said one stupid thing (a subset of one point mind you) doesn't invalidate the rest of his points, or even the point he was originally making.

        Focus on the discussion, not the people.

        • Focus on the discussion, not the people.

          Sure, when discussing the durability of solar panels one would expect an example that contained actual solar panels. We don't know how long solar panels will actually last because we have not been using them long enough to get good estimates. Claiming a potential operational lifespan of PV cells in the centuries cannot be backed with actual evidence.

          What we do have a lot of data on is the life of a nuclear reactor because we've been doing that for over six decades. Claiming an operational life of 50 year

          • Claiming a potential operational lifespan of PV cells in the centuries cannot be backed with actual evidence.
            That is why we have laws of physic.
            For most things in life you don't need any evidence but simply an understanding how physics work.
            PC cells hold basically indefinitely after they have degraded to their 'settled efficiency'.
            Everyone but you knows that, so you need evidence and we facepalm about you.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by JASP1 ( 30866 )

        Nothing that is destined to operate much beyond Mars orbit is powered by solar panels.

        Well, to be pedantic, Juno [nasa.gov] is a solar powered orbiter at Jupiter. The average distance to the sun for Mars is 1.5 AU, whereas it is 5.4 AU for Jupiter. But that's pushing the limits of the technology. There's an informative article [airspacemag.com] on the topic from Smithsonian's Air and Space Magazine. You can get a sense of the size of the panels from this video [youtube.com].

    • Re:Push study. (Score:5, Informative)

      by DRJlaw ( 946416 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:32PM (#54725487)

      Assumes they have a really short lifespan. Basically they are using manufacturer's estimated lifespan of 25 years, when in truth, these things do not stop working. No moving parts, hermetically sealed so no water, insects, or even air gets in, low electrical voltage. The most common cause of destruction is something hitting them - lightning bolts, hail, baseballs. They can theoretically last for centuries, not 25 years.

      Wrong. Silicon plate panels, i.e., the ones nobody wants to purchase anymore because they're ungodly expensive in comparison to alternatives, degrade at 0.5-0.7% of power capacity per year.

      Thin film panels, i.e., the ones everyone is currently buying due to cost advantages, degrade at 1-1.5% of power capacity per year.

      After you've lost 20% of your capacity and can no longer satisfy your design load, you're not going to be happily touting how you can still get power out of your panels.

      Who says? The NREL [nrel.gov], based upon about 1700 data points (Fig. 2 of linked report).

      Don't sell me bullshit either.

    • The gentleman has a history of pushing nuclear power beyond reason. Somewhat angry article about him:

      https://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/09/lost-in-bonkers-the-latest-episode-in-pro-nuclear-quackery/ [counterpunch.org]
    • 1) Assumes they have a really short lifespan.

      Voyager? Go read a book.

      They also assume that nuclear technology will not advance. There are nuclear reactor designs being worked on that can "burn" the waste from previous reactors. These reactors can also produce plutonium-238, for more deep space probes like Voyager.

      Solar? On Voyager? I can't even...

      2) When they do stop working, it assumes they will be recycled, rather than land filled (not a guarantee), and that they will be recycled in the cheapest, most environmentally horrible method - burning. Yes, that is the most common method for ewaste, but we are more likely to bury than to recycle them

      If it is not recycled then it is buried, either way we'd have a huge pile of stuff to deal with.

      3) They compared it with nuclear rather than coal or petroleum.

      Yes, they compare it with nuclear. This is because unlike a lot of environmental advocacy groups they offe

  • Just like everything else, nuclear included, solar panels are recyclable. Also unless you smash them they produce power longer than most of us will live. Sure they will eventually fall apart (the frame, glass, seals, etc), but again all trivial to recycle.

    In the immortal words of Van Jones....."This story is a nothing burger"

  • mdsolar's not going to like this...

  • by Cinnamon Beige ( 1952554 ) on Saturday July 01, 2017 @01:35PM (#54725499)

    Last I heard, the major problem with 'e-Waste' recycling was that, to put it bluntly, on a good day it is just 'shipped to the 3rd world to be burned for the copper'--and apparently the heavy metals also can be leeched out of the panels by rainwater & end up in the soil, which has its own problems because not all solar farms are on land actually owned by the people running the solar farm. (Good damn luck figuring out who's legally responsible for the hazmat site!)

    Really, I'm not going to trust anybody in the solar panel industry telling me that I basically shouldn't worry my little head about these problems, expecting honesty from them on potential environmental harm from solar panels. They've got a vested interest in denying everything, because the main selling point for solar power is that it's 'environmentally friendly.' This is an essential problem with any product where its key selling point is how (allegedly) environmentally-friendly it is--there is simply too much incentive for those profiting off the whole green movement for them to cover up any hint that their products might not be 100% harmless to the environment.

  • nationalreview.com makes extremely disingenuous arguments and I'm not talking about just this article. Please no more from nationalreview.com.

  • There is no need to single out solar panels. This is the same problem as recycling computers, phones, tablets, and everything else electronic. Shipping this stuff to the People's Republic of Onga-Bonga to be vainly pulled apart by starving children is a worse solution than just letting it pile up locally. We need to develop specific technology for separating the exotic metals that make up e-waste. We will need those materials again to make new devices.

    We are as gods, and had better get good at it.

    • There is no need to single out solar panels.

      I'll respectfully disagree, and I'll explain.

      In my house I have a lot of electronics. If I were to have solar panels on my roof and tore them off and put them on a pile and then took all my electronics and put that on a pile the solar panel pile would be much larger. People don't have much to replace the electronics they use everyday and so we can't just exactly chose to not use them and keep our standard of living. We don't have to use solar power, we can use something else and still live like we do. T

  • Environmental Review is a front. It's a pro-solar pressure group, and their concern for accurate science is secondary to that aim.

    Not that nuclear power is a bad thing - it's clean, it's dependable, it's free of troublesome political dependencies. But Environmental Review take it too far - just look through their website. It's nothing but glowing praise of nuclear power and total condemnation without exception of everything else.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Nuclear is "clean"? Apparently you are completely unaware that one reliably way to improve on "toxic" is "toxic and radioactive".

  • Did they account for all the waste from nuclear plants. They have a awful lot of control systems and plumbing systems. Many moving parts.

  • They always like to say "located in Berkeley" because it gives the impression that they're somehow leftist and edgy. They are neither of those things. They're an advocacy group for nuclear energy.

    I'm not anti-nuclear, by the way. I just tend to be suspicious when an advocacy group goes to such lengths to pretend they're something else.

  • But what about in 10'000 years? Or in 100'000? Or the few 100 Million years that anything containing Plutonium will take to become somewhat less dangerous?

  • since it's from a Nuclear Industry think tank, but they might have a point. Nuclear power produces very little waste. The trouble isn't the amount, it's that it's insanely dangerous and that companies have a long history of not caring where they throw their waste so long as it's cheap. You'd need a population that super pro-regulation and government oversight to make it work. Otherwise sooner or later some asshat will come along, buy off a few Senators (or whatever your local equivalent is) and toss the was
  • How is "mainly made up of easy-to-recycle materials" in any way informative? No one said they were 50%+ cadmium.

  • I understand that solar panels don't match up to nuclear. I also think I understand that nuclear would be one of our (if not THE) cleanest [known] way to produce the energy needs we have today, and that this is fairly common knowledge among those who care to educate themselves.

    Solar hasn't even taken over as the main source of power. So why is it being directly compared against nuclear like this? Like it's something bad and we should just keep mainly sucking up oil. It baffles me. I mean maybe a few nuclear

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