The truth about solar panels
Solar power has seen record growth over 10 years, created incredible number of new jobs, and is one of the most affordable forms of generating energy. But with all of those solar panels popping up across rooftops and open areas, what happens when time comes to replace them? And does the environmental impacts of manufacturing solar panels outweigh the benefits?
The truth about solar panels. I’m Matt Ferrell, welcome to Undecided. We take solar power at face value that solar power is cleaner and better than the alternative of burning fossil fuels. Is solar power cleaner? We don’t often look at what kind of impact and the cost of making solar panels or what will happen to solar panels at the end of life. Take a step back and you can see how quickly things are shifting in favor of renewable energy generation.
Solar has a 49% average annual growth in the US
There’s enough solar panels installed today to power almost 16 million homes and still growing. The largest portion of that growth has been in utility scale. Solar installations at around 60 MW of capacity. Meanwhile during this boom, coal jobs have been shrinking dramatically, by almost 50%.
During 2012, there were almost 90,000 coal jobs, however, today there are around 46,000. Further, solar industry had around 250,000 jobs in the fall of 2019, doubling what the industry was around 2012. This massive growth in solar has been a huge boom to the economy and helped to drive solar panel prices down. While same story is true in every industry: economies of scale drive down prices. Cost of installing solar has dropped by 70% of the past decade, and is still dropping.
If you haven’t seen my recent video on Tesla’s incredible per watt pricing here in the US, I’ll included a link in the description. We’re around $1.50 per watt right now for installation. Still higher than countries like Australia and areas in Europe, but solar is heading in the right direction. Those dropping costs have pushed solar to one of the cheapest forms of energy generation today. Utility scale solar is somewhere between $32-$44/MWh, unsubsidized in the US. Compare that to coal, gas, or nuclear and you can see why more and more utilities are canceling plans for building out new gas plants in favor of solar. Again, just look at the solar drop in per MWh pricing since 2009.
This news shouldn’t be surprising that 40% of new electric generating capacity built out in 2019 in the US was solar. And many companies have stepped up their own solar installations to reduce costs and be more self-sufficient when it comes to power. By 2018, commercial solar installations were at around 1.1MW between companies like Apple, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Google.
The truth about solar panels – Dropping cost of solar
Why is dropping cost of solar important when thinking about solar’s green credentials? This type of cost analysis is called a Leveled Cost of Energy comparison (LCOE), which creates an apples to apples comparison between different energy sources. Analysis takes into account cost of building out a facility, cost of sourcing materials, and keeping production running. As well as, cost of dismantling and disposing of the plant at end of life. So solar gets the nod from a cost perspective, but how does solar look from an environmental impact perspective?
Well, there’s another form of apples to apples analysis for that, too. This is called a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and looks at everything from manufacturing to disposal. This assessment is the same thing as an LCOE, but looking at environment instead. Solar panels are made up of components like silicon, metal framing, glass sheets, wires, and plexiglass. Nothing particularly shocking.
You’ll find things like hydrochloride acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, acetone, and a few others when making a typical panel. But this process depends on the type of panel being manufactured. These chemicals take a lot of care when handling and need to be disposed of properly. But their cost gives manufacturers a big financial incentive to recycle and reuse them whenever possible.
The truth about solar panels – Reduced impact on the environment
Manufacturing process of solar panels is where the bulk of solar panels impact is on the environment; between 0.07 – 0.18 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent per KWh. For a point of comparison, lifecycle emission rate for natural gas is 0.6 – 2 lbs of CO2E/kWh, and coal is between 1.4 – 3.6 lbs of CO2E/kWh.
What about the energy it takes to manufacture the panels?
A common statement I hear a lot is that it takes more energy to manufacture a solar panel that it will every produce over solar panels life, or energy pay back time (EPBT). This statement depends on what type of panel you’re talking about and where the panels are getting used. But, in general, a standard multi-crystalline solar panel will pay itself off energy-wise in 4 years. Considering that the expected lifespan of a solar panel is 30 or more years, that’s 26+ years of net positive energy production. And thin-film solar panel modules pay themselves back in energy production after 3 years.
The estimates get even better when you take into account future solar panels that are coming which will have payback periods around 1-2 years. That means between 87%-97% of a solar panels energy production is net positive. And that brings me to end of life, well, not me, at least I hope not, wait, what have you heard?
The truth about solar panels – Disposing of solar panels
Anyway, this brings us to disposing of solar panels once they reach the end of their usable life. We’re talking about 30 or more years of expected time for the average panel. Not a lot of time to kick the can down the road. There is a common belief that solar panels can’t be recycled, but that’s not true. After all we’re talking about silicon, metal framing, glass sheets, wires, and plexiglass as the bulk of a solar panel.
80% of a typical solar panel is glass and aluminum, which are easy to recycle. The basic process involves separating the aluminum frame, which is 100% reusable. Then separating the glass along a conveyor belt, which is about 95% reusable. The smelting process and etching away the silicon wafers results in about 85% of reusable product. Solar panel manufacturing can be an expensive process, but there’s a financial incentive to go down this path anyway. Let’s continue to find the truth about solar panels.
The truth about solar panels – International Renewable Agency
Government policies can play a major role in making sure we’re setting ourselves up for success here too. The EU has been more aggressive in their solar recycling and end-of-life policies than we have been here in the US. The IRA defined solar panels as e-waste, which puts them under the [Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive]. This requires solar manufacturers to meet certain recycling standards, which has created a marketplace for panel recyclers. Viola has partnered with the non-profit PV Cycle in Europe to collect the panels and recycle them in a plant where robots separate the components. More of the truth about solar panels.
Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has created a working group for recycling providers, and offers benefits and discounts to SEIA members. One example of that is Cleanlites, which isn’t a dedicated solar recycler, but can handle recycling solar equipment. And solar companies like SunPower and First Solar have their own recycling programs. These programs allow customers to return old panels through groups like PV Cycle to the manufacturer for recycling or reuse.
The truth about solar panels – US Environmental Protection Agency
The risks from lead in silicon PV panels is about 1/10th below the risk levels set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. And for cadmium, it’s even lower. Again, this isn’t an excuse to just dump them in landfills, but the exposure to some of the heavy and toxic metals isn’t as great as you might think. When you take the full picture of solar power into account from cost to manufacturing and disposal, the costs are undeniable that solar is a dramatic improvement over fossil fuel forms of energy generation. There’s a good reason why so many people, companies, and governments are pushing into solar energy.
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