Could crumbling infrastructure bode well for American solar energy or will recycling be the downfall of America’s switch to solar?
By Greg Pustorino
Rising concerns over climate change have been pushing countries around the world to switch from using coal as their primary source of energy generation. Numerous countries around the world have taken initiative to transition to renewable energy. Iceland became one of the first countries to rely 100% on renewable energy production. And Germany’s adoption of solar has pushed them close to using 50% renewable energy sources. Within the US alone, coal burning dropped by 13% in 2019, the largest decrease in 65 years.
This decrease in coal consumption is happening concurrently with the retirement of many early coal burning power plants in the US. Most traditional power plants in the US (over 50%) were built before 1980 and around 75% of all coal plants in the US are at least thirty years old. Considering the average lifespan of a coal power plant is around forty years, we are currently sitting at a watershed in American energy production.
The next few years will reveal whether the US will reinvest in the hard infrastructure of traditional power plants; in essence, prolonging the switch to renewable energy by forty years. The current trend within the United States has been to transition into natural gas plants. Natural gas creates less air pollution than coal, however, it still harms the environment through its method of extraction, fracking, and the excess heat pollution it creates when it is consumed. Additionally, natural gas has a finite supply so there will always be a need to switch to renewable energy.
Alternatively, even though the US has been slow to adopt renewable energy sources like solar, its residents have been transitioning to solar at an exponential rate since 2013. Falling prices and the increase in competition in the solar market has made solar energy cheaper and more attractive. Historically, environmental benefits alone have not been enough to push Americans to invest in solar panels. However, the increase in efficiency and ability to save money in the long term is enough to get Americans onboard with solar. As of 2018, there are 1.5 million solar panels in use across the contiguous United States, which produce around 1.6% of the country’s energy, enough to power 12.3 million American homes.
This trend is following the constant improvement in solar technology. Solar panels continue to be both more efficient and more affordable every year. This makes solar an even more attractive alternative to coal and natural gas. However, as we reach the theoretical efficiency limit for solar panels other factors like the lifespan and reusability of the technology become limiting to the scalability of solar sustainability.
Currently, the most efficient solar panels commercially available operate at 22.8% efficiency, whereas a majority of solar panels operate at around 15-17% efficiency. The theoretical Shockley–Queisser limit is 33% for traditional p-n junction photovoltaic cells. This limitation is inherent in the materials used to make solar panels and there is no way to go beyond it. Higher efficiencies are only possible through quantum technologies that are now being investigated but are not commercially available. Moreover, Tesla has been able to push lithium-ion batteries to be nearly 90% efficient at storing energy generated from solar panels. Most commercially available solar panels are engineered to last for 20-25 years while traditional batteries usually live for 10-15 years.
The rapid iterations in solar technology paired with the finite lifespan of solar panels is possibly the largest cost to large scale adoption of solar energy and sustainable grids. Solar panels have the capacity to provide energy for the entire world. A recent German study proposed that, with current efficiency rates, a solar farm the size of California (about 190,000 square miles) would be enough to satisfy the world’s energy needs. In order to be feasible, this area would need to be greatly decentralized and spread out across every country. If solar energy is to be holistically sustainable, an infrastructure for recycling and reusing solar panels must be in place as countries and populations around the world adopt more and more solar panels.
Adopting solar energy is the first step towards having a sustainable energy supply, however, solar panels produce their own difficulties since they eventually need to be replaced and recycled. The United States currently houses 45 million tons of solar panels. Additionally, solar panel installations started to accelerate around 2008 to 2013, which leaves a majority of US solar panels well within their 25-30 year lifespans. As a result little to no robust infrastructure exists to recycle solar cells and their components. A 2016 study predicts that by the end of 2020 the value of recyclable materials within old solar cells will be nearly $15 billion.
Given the difficulties that have plagued recycling in terms of paper and plastics, it might be extremely difficult to be able to extract this value from old or outdated solar panels even though most of the glass and aluminum is reusable. Recycling programs have been ongoing for years and are still problematic because the destination of recycling is often ambiguous or no different from regular waste. Therefore, keeping the 45 million tons of solar panels currently in the US from winding up in landfills is something the US is not currently prepared to deal with.
Luckily, our green-thumbed European friends have been installing solar panels since the 1990s and have already started creating regulations and infrastructure capable of recycling the glass and aluminium within solar cells. In 2007 the European Union founded an organization called PV Cycle that is working throughout the continent to build out robust recycling infrastructure capable of keeping the renewable sector sustainable.
This missing infrastructure within the US is what limits how beneficial and efficient switching to solar energy could be for the country. In order to have a large scale solar grid, the US needs a systematic infrastructure capable of efficiently recycling and retaining the value of solar technology especially as the technology continues to change and improve. Learning from what the Europeans have started to do in 2007, the US can start to prepare for the inevitable need for solar cell recycling.
Given that the US has just begun adopting solar in meaningful proportions, these problems with recycling will only get worse. Both environmental and economic losses will be enormous if the United States does not have the foresight that the European Union had in 2007 to create a solar cell recycling process mentality. The US has the advantage of analyzing what he European Union has done and can try to distill out what worked and adapt it to American problems. □
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