Environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger told NTD’s “The Nation Speaks” that the economics of solar panel production, deployment, and recycling shows that the technology has a “toxic” and “dangerous” dimension while its advocacy is driven by ideological leanings, rather than sound science.
“We’ve been in a sort of hypnotic trance,” Shellenberger said, referring to what he characterized as the misguided belief that solar power is an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional forms of power generation like nuclear.
“It’s a spiritual pursuit,” he added. “There’s the idea that … we’ll protect the natural environment by being dependent on natural energy flows like sunlight. It’s not a scientific view. It actually is worse for the environment.”
A recent Harvard Business Review study concluded that solar panels are being replaced faster than expected due to various economic incentives, warning of a rising mountain of solar panel trash “of existentially damaging proportions” unless incentives are adopted to drive down the high costs of recycling.
“Economic incentives are rapidly aligning to encourage customers to trade their existing panels for newer, cheaper, more efficient models. In an industry where circularity solutions such as recycling remain woefully inadequate, the sheer volume of discarded panels will soon pose a risk of existentially damaging proportions,” the study states.
The study cites estimates by Garvin Heath, senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who told PV Magazine that it costs $20 to $30 to recycle a panel versus $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill. Harvard Business Review concluded that the bright promise of more widespread adoption of solar energy as an environmentally friendly alternative “would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.”
Asked about the study, Shellenberger confirmed the high recycling costs, but noted that they’re but one part of the end-of-life burden of solar. The panels contain heavy metals, like lead, which can be released as a toxic cloud if the panels shatter during disposal.
BY TOM OZIMEK