A leading activist has raised concerns over the ecological impact of solar panels — a renewable energy technology widely considered to be harmless to the environment.
Michael Shellenberger — the president of Environmental Progress, a nonprofit organization working to promote clean energy — detailed the real-life impacts of discarded solar installation.
Solar technology typically contains cadmium, lead and other toxic chemicals that can’t be extracted without taking apart the whole panel, resulting in entire solar panels being considered hazardous, Shellenberger noted in a Forbes article Wednesday.
More specifically, these toxic chemicals become an environmental threat when solar panels reach their end-of-life stage and need to be disposed.
Panels left in landfills may break apart and release toxic waste into the ground or even enter bodies of water.
Solar panel disposal in “regular landfills [is] not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil,” the Electric Power Research Institute determined in a 2016 study.
There is growing concern over the possibility of rainwater washing cadmium out of panels and into the environment. In Virginia, for example, a group of locals are pushing back against a proposal to construct a 6,350-acre solar farm in Spotsylvania County.
“We estimate there are 100,000 pounds of cadmium contained in the 1.8 million panels,” Sean Fogarty of Concerned Citizens of Fawn Lake stated to Shellenberger. “Leaching from broken panels damaged during natural events — hail storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. — and at decommissioning is a big concern.”
Virtually no one in media cares to discuss the solar industry’s negative effects on the environment, Shellenger also noted.
“With few environmental journalists willing to report on much of anything other than the good news about renewables, it’s been left to environmental scientists and solar industry leaders to raise the alarm,” he wrote.
As a suggested solution, Shellenberger entertained the idea of an added fee with solar panel purchases that can go toward the recycling and disposing of decommissioned panels. He also encouraged greater government involvement as to avoid the placement of solar installation into landfills.
Previous studies have examined the solar industries’ effect on the environment. The process it takes to build renewable energy technology is extremely intensive, an April America Rising Squared report determined. The production of solar panels and wind turbines, America Rising found, requires the extraction of rare earth metals such as Indium, Gallium and Tellurium. Refining these rare minerals is extremely energy intensive.
Issues relating to solar panel waste will only worsen as more Americans utilize the technology. Lured with promises of long-term financial gains and environmental benefits, a growing number of U.S. households are purchasing rooftop solar installations.
On May 9, California became the first state in the U.S. to mandate every new household have a solar panel.
Environmental activists, like billionaire Tom Steyer, are funding national campaigns to promote renewable energy use. Such campaigns and government mandates are increasing renewable portfolio standards across the country.
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