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The Weekender: What will be done with millions of old solar panels?

Handfuls and more of old solar panels will need to be repurposed or recycled. Ensia article

The Weekender features a longer form article (or podcast like this week) from a reputable source. We select articles that discuss issues and opportunities we deem just off the radar for many business people, students, and faculty. We aim to expand the mind, broaden the heart, and sharpen the analysis. Have a great weekend.

This week....

The problem with some solutions are the problems they create. I thought about this truth and the explosive growth of the solar industry when I recently read the continuous improvement classic novel/manifesto The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. Jonah, the wise professor turned consultant of the story, often repeated that conventional manufacturing approaches to efficiency and productivity improvements led to, ironically, greater overall inefficiency. Solutions, he would say often, were a great source of problems. And so it is with the solar industry.

Renewable energy--such as solar power--may help to solve one environmental problem (air pollution) while creating others (waste). Sustainability is nothing if not taking responsibility for the life cycle costs of our products and services. As the late ecologist Barry Commoner said: "There is no free lunch" Everything has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. And so this article from the independent, non-profit news magazine Ensia caught my attention. Fortunately, it sounds like the industry might be ahead of the curve. For example, First Solar, one of the largest photovoltaic providers, has offered recycling for its panels for years.


What will we do with all those solar panels when their useful life is over? (Nate Berg, Ensia)

"As solar power booms, businesses are exploring ways to ensure valuable components don’t end up in landfills."

"By the end of 2015, an estimated 222 gigawatts worth of solar energy had been installed worldwide. According to a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, that number could reach 4,500 GW by 2050."

"But the solar panels generating that power don’t last forever. The industry standard life span is about 25 to 30 years, and that means that some of the panels installed at the early end of the current boom aren’t long from being retired. And each passing year, more and more will be pulled from service — glass and metal photovoltaic modules that will soon start adding up to millions, and then tens of millions of metric tons of material."

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