The dark side of solar power

The sun is a great source of renewable energy. But how we harness that energy has its problems.

Shutterstock

Solar power is one of the most popular renewable energy sources.

Solar is the fastest growing energy sector in the United States — mostly because it’s both accessible, and pretty damn cheap.

Environmental Images/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

70%

How much the cost of solar panels has dropped since 2014.

Solar Energies Industry Association

But while solar power is better for the environment than fossil fuels, it can still be improved.

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

To access solar power, you need solar photovoltaics, or solar PV.

These devices and materials convert sunlight into energy. For example, a solar panel is a type of solar PV.

Shutterstock

Making solar panels requires minerals like copper, nickel, and cadmium.

Unfortunately, the extraction and chemical separation processes for these materials is a large source of pollution.

The solar industry is also heavily reliant on polysilicon.

About half of the world’s polysilicon comes from the Xinjiang region in China, per The Wall Street Journal. But Xinjiang is also the region where the Chinese government has been accused of perpetrating a genocide against ethnic minorities, mainly the Uighur Muslims.

Some fear that materials acquired from Xinjiang “could have links to forced labor,” per the Journal. “And lack of unrestricted access to Xinjiang means it is difficult to ensure suppliers aren’t somehow linked to human-rights abuses.”

Adrian Bradshaw/EPA/Shutterstock

For now, solar energy has a small carbon footprint.

But fun fact: Most solar panels only last 25 to 30 years.

That creates another problem: What happens when solar panels die?

6 million

How many metric tons of e-waste will be created each year from dead solar panels by 2050.

The International Renewable Energy Agency

Recycling is the obvious solution to any waste issue.

But early on, the solar industry found itself in a catch-22.

Shutterstock

“There aren't enough places to recycle old solar panels, and there aren’t enough defunct solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive.”

Recycling is more feasible now because solar energy is so popular.

But it can’t be left up to individual choice. Some places, like the European Union, require producers to recycle their solar panels. In the U.S., there are no recycling mandates, and because recycling is more expensive than just trashing dead parts, only about 10% of material gets recycled.

That needs to change.

Don’t feel guilty if you’ve been championing solar energy.

Expanding solar power is definitely better than continuing our reliance on fossil fuels. But we need to tackle its shortcomings before they become too big to handle.

Shutterstock