The solar industry has experienced record growth every year for a decade and, in the process, has proven itself to be a clean and reliable energy source for our planet. The largest corporations in the world continue to set aggressive sustainability targets and reduce their carbon footprint. On Earth Day and every day, we all must remain steadfast in our mission to reverse the climate crisis and meet new challenges with scientific support, technological advancement, and industry alignment.
With the solar industry’s rapid growth, a new obstacle has emerged: the waste stream we are creating. Over 910 GW of solar have been installed globally, with 121.4 GW in the United States alone. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) calculates that there will be 78 million tonnes of waste by 2050 and that, by 2035, discarded modules will outweigh newly sold modules by 2.56 times (Source: The Dark Side of Solar Power).
Many early solar adopters anticipated their equipment would have a useful life of 25-30 years, but several factors are accelerating solar decommissioning. Rapid technological advancements within our industry are driving solar asset owners to explore options for increased energy production and safer operations. These owners may upgrade their equipment to higher efficiency modules and more reliable inverters while maintaining their existing interconnection agreements. Since this can supercharge project timelines and economics, Decom Solar is seeing many companies update system equipment within the first 8-12 years of operation. With technology becoming more efficient and safe every year, the amount of material that will need to be removed will increase exponentially, resulting in faster than anticipated waste production.
On the surface, replacing older technology to increase solar production is positive; the more clean energy produced, the less reliance we have on fossil fuels. While this is true, it presents unique technological and ethical barriers. Older modules that are removed from operation, but not truly at their end-of-life, should be redeployed to maximize the 30 years of clean energy they were built to produce, but older modules are likely not up to current UL requirements and therefore cannot be installed with available solar racking. This limits module redeployment options to underdeveloped countries, off-grid installations, or, ground mount applications only. Many non-profits are using the solar waste stream to do the incredible; our NPO partners provide electricity to communities without power, provide generation during catastrophic events, or power clean water pumps for those without access. However, the solar industry at large must ensure that solar material is not temporarily redeployed only to be dumped in landfills or oceans years from now.
These are not new problems. All emerging industries (including the computer and auto industries) faced similar waste disposal challenges and were able to drive advancements and revenue streams from their waste. Our industry differentiates itself from others in our mission to stop climate crisis and mitigate our reliance on fossil fuels. As environmental stewards, we all must push manufacturers, developers, corporations, installers, and industry trade groups to focus on reduction, reuse, and recycling of our waste stream. We must challenge our industry to be flexible, creative, and unwavering in our mission, as we always have, to save our planet for future generations.