These Two Myths About Solar Power Are Slowing The Energy Transition
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is essential in reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing rapid climate change. But in many cases, misinformation and misunderstandings about solar power and wind energy have delayed their adoption.
Now, experts from Colorado have busted two of the most widespread myths about solar panels on social media and in the mass media. Writing in the journal Nature Physics, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado have pushed back on claims that solar uptake will lead to a “waste mountain” of discarded panels, and further show that the purported toxicity of solar panels has been greatly exaggerated by media and even by government departments.
“Myths are often used to delay the deployment of renewable energy, which is harmful because it slows our response to climate change,” said Teresa Barnes, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and an author of the report. “The impacts of unmitigated climate change are far more dangerous and deadly than any possible risk posed by renewables.”
In their article, Barnes and her colleagues acknowledge that a massive 75 terawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity are needed worldwide in order to help limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which has understandably led to “growing concerns about the quantity of waste that may arise from decommissioning them.” In a worst case scenario, 160 million metric tons of solar panel waste could be accumulated by 2050.
That sounds like a lot. But the researchers show that amounts to a tiny fraction of waste from other sources, such as coal: “35 years of cumulative PV module waste (2016–2050) is dwarfed by the waste generated by fossil fuel energy and other common waste streams,” the authors write, noting that the volume of coal ash and oily sludge waste from fossil fuel energy is up to 300–800 times and 2–5 times greater, respectively, than that from solar modules. And crucially, they point out, most solar waste is already recyclable, with a growing recycling industry developing around the recovery of materials for reuse.
In addition to concerns about sheer quantity of waste, the authors say misinformation about toxic materials in solar modules has led to misleading or overstated claims about the harms solar waste poses to human health and the environment, which has added to public opposition to the development of solar generation. Several U.S. state department websites, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection [PDF download], suggest solar modules can contain toxic materials such as arsenic, gallium, germanium and hexavalent chromium.
The researchers found that the two most common types of PV contain “almost none” of those toxins. The most popular modules, crystalline silicon, contain less than 0.1% lead, usually from lead solder, which the authors suggest is being phased out by manufacturers. Meanwhile, the other most common type of module, cadmium telluride (CdTe), contains less than 0.1% cadmium, but that the compound of cadmium used is extremely stable and therefore can be recaptured in recycling processes.
Indeed, the authors note, the recycling of solar modules is “critical to decarbonizing the PV supply chain and minimizing waste.” They also note that rapid advances in solar technology are allowing manufacturers to start targeting a 50-year lifespan for panels.
Barnes expressed the hope that the research could offer an “objective source of facts and data” for regulators and communities wanting to make informed, rational decisions around renewable energy investments. “Deploying more solar and wind energy is the most effective and fastest option we have right now to decarbonize,” she added.
Researcher Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath, U.K., indicated that the work from NREL played an important role in the light of misinformation about renewable energy more generally. “We know these sort of negative claims, whether true or not, can significantly impede or set back an innovation’s success … they can resonate with the growing backlash against net zero policies by right of centre groups and with wider public worries about cost of living,” she said.
Whitmarsh, who was not involved in the NREL research, explained that misinformation about solar power was particularly effective because, according to research from psychology, people tended to pay more attention to negative information than positive, “so it doesn’t take so many negative claims to undermine confidence in new products than positive ones to build it.”
Nevertheless, global investment in solar appears to be continuing to gather steam. In May, the International Energy Agency announced that in 2023, investments in solar would overtake investments in oil production for the first time.
The Nature Physics article “Unfounded concerns about photovoltaic module toxicity and waste are slowing decarbonization” can be viewed here. A subscription may be required to view the whole article.