The last in our continuing four-part series, we explore some of the most common myths and misconceptions about residential solar energy systems. Here are the final three myths that often lead people to dismiss solar as an option for their home.
Solar panels are hazardous to the environment and can’t be recycled.
Although the U.S. market is just beginning to tackle this issue, solar panels can and are being recycled responsibly.
There are many materials contained in solar panels that can be repurposed or recycled for other uses. According to a 2016 study conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the typical crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV panel contains about 76% glass (panel surface), 10% polymer (encapsulant and back sheet foil), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon (solar cells), 1% copper (interconnectors) and less than 0.1% silver (contact lines) and other metals (mostly tin and lead). These panels make up 92% of the market. The lesser used thin film PV panels make up the difference and consist of more than 98% glass, polymer and aluminum (nonhazardous waste) but also modest amounts of copper and zinc (together around 2% of the mass). They also contain semiconductor or hazardous materials such as indium, gallium, selenium, cadmium tellurium and lead, according to the report.
While most of these materials have obvious recycling value, there are some elements such as lead and cadmium, that need to be disposed of properly.
In Europe where solar panel recycling is law, there are many companies involved in this process and it provides a good framework from which the U.S. can draw. The challenge is that it is not yet a big concern here and therefore, not very economical. The reason: solar didn’t really take off on a large scale in the U.S. until 2010 and with the average solar panel lasting 20-25 years or more, there are few companies willing to invest in solar recycling until there is a significant demand and it becomes profitable.
However, there are some with the foresight to begin the process now. A leader in U.S. solar panel recycling is the Nevada based RecyclePV Solar, which bases its business model off European examples. In addition, the national trade association for the solar industry, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), has organized the PV Recycling Work Group consisting of recyclers and member manufacturers to begin addressing the coming challenge of solar recycling in the U.S. and how best to implement a solution.
On the regulatory front, Washington state is the only state in the U.S. with a legal requirement to recycle solar panels once their useful life has ended. New York is also considering such a law.
Solar panels are quickly outdated.
Solar technology has made great strides over the past 20 years. What used to be super expensive and only moderately effective has become mainstream and extremely efficient at producing energy.
However, that doesn’t mean that the technology will grow fast enough to become obsolete in just a few years as it does with mobile phones or personal computers. In our technology-driven world, it’s tempting to believe that, but when it comes to solar technology, progress occurs at a more gradual pace.
Today’s home solar panel systems are more than adequate for your home’s energy needs. In fact, they are soo efficient that you are able to sell the excess power you generate back to your local electric utility. In addition, the average solar panel produces power at peak efficiency for 20-25 years and can last 30 years or more before any significant degradation in output occurs.
So, while advancements in solar energy will continue, you can rest assured that if you invest in a home solar system today, it will not become obsolete.
Solar manufacturing creates more air pollution than it saves.
Yes, it’s true the manufacturing of solar panels involves the use of some toxic chemicals and does produce some carbon emissions. However, name one manufacturing process that is completely carbon free or 100% clean.
You can’t because it doesn’t exist in modern society. In fact, every manufacturing plant uses electricity and in the U.S., the majority of that electricity still comes from coal and natural gas, something we are trying to change. In that regard, every manufacturer has a negative effect on the environment.
Therefore, the baseline to consider is not whether a manufacturing process is 100% pollution free, but to what extent is it harmful to the environment. When compared to what it takes to construct other energy producing sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, solar manufacturing is exponentially less harmful to the environment and requires far less energy. Not to mention that these traditional power plants are built to last a minimum of 50 years and continue polluting the environment on a large scale their entire lifecycle.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the most widely used type of home solar panels, crystalline silicon PVs (c-Si), have an energy payback time of four years. That means it takes four years for these solar panels to produce enough clean energy to offset the energy it took to manufacture them. Considering that most home solar systems last 20-25 years, that’s 16-21 years of pollution free energy production.
So, the claim that solar manufacturing produces more air pollution that it saves is false.
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