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Is Human Health Threatened by Solar Panels in Landfills? IEA Research: No

published: 2020-04-10 18:30

The optimal method in disposing discarded solar panels is obviously recycling and reusing, which further elevates reuse technology and enhances the values of recycled products, though old solar panels are mostly accumulated in storage or are buried in landfills before relevant mechanisms are established. Is human health threatened by the pollutants from these discarded solar panels? The answer is no, according to the research conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Foreign media coverage indicated that IEA will be publishing the latest results regarding the sustainable research Task 12 this year. Garvin Heath, supervisor of Task 12 and senior scientist of National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), disclosed that as pointed out by the research of the team, the solar panels buried in landfills are highly unlikely to impose a threat to human health.

How was the research conducted? IEA implemented the research under a worst-case scenario at an unlined landfill with water seepage from waste. The management focus of a landfill environment lies on the collection and disposal of seepage water, for which the goal is to prevent highly concentrated organic matters, ammonia nitrogen, mineral salt, and trace amount of heavy metals from seeping into underground water or nearby soil that would lead to environmental pollution. Although the solar batteries have been sealed with adhesives to eliminate the possibility of self-dissolving or seepage, there are still concerns regarding the effectiveness of such approach.

Heath pointed out that the observation in whether the primary pollutants, including lead, cadmium, and selenium, that are found within crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells, would trigger extensive environmental pollution, has indicated that the pollution capacity did not exceed the health screening threshold under the worst-case scenario, which means that a more thorough health risk assessment will not be necessary under the relatively low risk.

Nonetheless, IEA is yet to publish this research and disclose additional details regarding the research process and its results. In addition, there are other environmental pollutants within solar panels that are in question, though the worst-case scenario may not occur since many existing landfills come in the form of lined landfills.

Rather than encouraging the public to send all solar panels to landfills, this research of IEA only intended to understand the consequences resulting from the worst disposal of solar panels. 90% of solar panels in the US ended up in landfills, according to the coverage by solar panel recycling company Recycle PV Solar in 2018.

Europe currently has the most comprehensive recycling and disposal mechanism, with a recycling rate of solar panels as high as 97%. Due to earlier development, there are already enough discarded panels to support the recycling chain in areas like Europe and Japan, where integrated recycling and reusing systems have been established. Take, for example, PV Cycle, an organization formed by the European Union in 2007 that specializes in recycling; its members consist of photovoltaic and waste disposal operators, and the organization has been providing collective and tailored services of waste management and legal compliance for companies and waste holders around the world.

How is Taiwan Disposing Discarded Solar Panels?

Having yet to establish a solar recycling chain, Taiwan’s method in disposing discarded solar panels is far from scattered, as the country is currently adopting a centralized storage. Based on the estimate by the Environmental Protection Administration, Executive Yuan, the lifespan of solar panels is 20 years, and with the 0.5% of damage from wind disasters each year, there will be approximately 10K tonnes of waste in 2023, and it will surpass 100K tonnes each year starting from 2035.

Bureau of Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs, is currently responsible for the collection of fees and the custody of discarded solar panels. A recycling charge of NTD$ 1,000/KW for solar panels was incorporated into the “Feed-in Tariffs and the Calculation Formula for the Electricity Generated by the Renewable Energy Power Generation Equipment of 2019” that was stipulated on February 1st 2019 to establish a recycling mechanism, and a recycling charge of NTD$ 0.0656/kWh for modules was listed in the “Feed-in Tariffs and the Calculation Formula for the Electricity Generated by the Renewable Energy Power Generation Equipment of 2020” stipulated on December 31st of the same year.

Installing and disposing solar panels requires a registration of discharge information at the “Management and Information System for the Recycling Service of Discarded Solar Panels”, where the module serial number, form, and quantity must be filled in. Waste holders who have accumulated 50 panels will be notified within a specific time period to voluntarily or commission special assignment offices to deliver the discarded panels marked with the waste code of“D-2528 Discarded Photovoltaic Panels after Use” to a specified temporary location or a disposal (mould manufacturer) operator.

(Cover photo source: Flickr/Mountain/ Ash CC BY 2.0)

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