2014/11/14: As the world seeks cleaner power, solar energy capacity has increased sixfold in the past five years. Yet manufacturing all those solar panels, a Tuesday report shows, can have environmental downsides.
Ben Santarris, strategic affairs director for SolarWorld, said his company has made efforts to recycle panels, but the volume isn't there yet. "We have product that's still performing to standard from 1978, so we don't have a big stream," he said. "It is a problem, because on one hand there is an interest in getting ahead of a swelling stream of returning panels. On the other hand, there's not a big market for it right now."
Recycling is particularly important because of the materials used to make panels, said Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San José State University who serves as a scientific adviser to SVTC. "It would be difficult to find a PV module that does not use at least one rare or precious metal," he said, "because they all have at least silver, tellurium, or indium."
Because recycling is limited, Mulvaney said, those recoverable metals could go to waste: "Companies that are reporting on a quarterly basis, surviving on razor-thin margins—they're not thinking 20, 30 years down the road, where the scarcity issue might actually enter the conversation."