Twenty million tons of environmentally hazardous solar panel waste – weighing 2,000 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower – will build up in China by 2050, the general secretary the China Renewable Energy Society Photovoltaic Committee warns. The looming waste epidemic highlights the short shelf life of solar power panels and some of the hidden environmental impacts of solar power.
General Secretary Lu Fang, according to the South China Morning Post, also warns that solar panel waste will equal three times the scale of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam in less than 20 years.
The rapid accumulation of solar panel waste is particularly alarming considering nearly half of China’s total solar capacity was added just last year. The short-term life expectancy of solar panels is in stark contrast to conventional power plants, which typically remain in operation for 50 years or longer.
Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of generated electricity than nuclear power plants, Environmental Progress reports. Making matters worse, Environmental Progress reports that many communities in China and other developing nations often burn solar panel waste to salvage copper wires for resale. The process involves burning plastic, lead, and other solar panel materials, releasing toxic and carcinogenic fumes into the air.
Even Chinese recycling companies, who stand to economically benefit from a mountain of retired solar panels, warn about the looming solar panel catastrophe.
“It will explode in full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment, if the estimate is correct,” Tian Min, general manager of recycling company Nanjing Fangrun Materials, told the Morning Post.
“This is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle,” Tian added.
A full-spectrum environmental analysis indicates natural gas, nuclear power, and hydro power are comparable to solar power in environmental impacts. Unlike solar power, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydro power are affordable and reliable, available after dark and not susceptible to vagaries in cloud cover.