The solar panels at a 5.2 megawatt solar farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska were mostly destroyed by baseball-sized hail moving at 100 to 150 miles per hour at the end of June. The solar panels were supposed to be hail-proof, but the size of the hailstones was exceptionally large. High winds that accompanied the hail storm may have driven the large hailstones into the Scottsbluff panels, exceeding their hail resistance limits. The hail storm was part of a giant supercell thunderhead that moved across eastern Wyoming and into Nebraska. The multimillion-dollar solar farm consisted of over 14,000 solar panels that had been put into operation in 2019. The system’s 25-year expected lifetime was cut to less than 4 years, leaving a toxic mess to clean up. It begs the questions of whether it makes sense to depend on such weather-vulnerable power plants and how long will it take to clean up the toxic mess left behind.
Vulnerability to Hailstorms
The area of the country that runs from eastern Wyoming directly into Scottsbluff is ranked as the highest category for hail risk in America, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The area has some of the highest frequencies of hailstorms in the country, averaging seven to nine hailstorms per year, including hail stones from pea-sized to baseball-sized. Yet, the area is still building solar plants that could be affected as the Scottsbluff solar farm was, driven by federal and state incentives to deploy renewable energy.
The situation at Scottsbluff of disposing of the waste from the rubble that was left behind is an immediate problem. But, there will be far more waste from solar panel disposal when the panels being erected around the world end their 25-year life expectancy. The world has installed more than one terawatt of solar capacity and as most solar panels have a capacity of about 400 watts, there could be as many as 2.5 billion solar panels. By 2030, there could be four million metric tons of solar panel waste and by 2050, more than 200 million metric tons globally–about half the amount of plastic currently produced worldwide each year which makes modern life possible.
The challenge of recycling these discarded panels is daunting. Traditional recycling methods, while able to recover most of the aluminum and glass, which is of low quality and unsuitable for making new panels, struggle to extract and reclaim precious materials, such as silver and copper. Over 60 percent of the value of solar panels is contained in just 3 percent of their weight. However, these materials are intertwined with other components, making them economically challenging to separate and there is not enough infrastructure to handle the recycling demand. Additional infrastructure requires additional investment which will ultimately be passed onto consumers of energy.
France is at the forefront of recycling in Europe. At the end of June, the world’s first factory dedicated to fully recycling solar panels officially opened in Grenoble, France. ROSI, the specialist solar recycling company which owns the facility, hopes eventually to be able to extract and re-use 99 percent of a unit’s components. The new factory will recycle the glass fronts and aluminum frames, and recover nearly all of the precious materials contained within the panels, such as silver and copper, which are hard to extract. In the future, the factory owners hope to be able to recover nearly three-quarters of the materials needed to make new solar panels from retired PV units and to recycle them to speed up production of new panels. Last year, just under 4,000 metric tons of French solar panels were recycled.
Since recycling is still in its infancy and is expensive, most used solar panels will continue to be crushed or shredded when they retire, which is far cheaper than recycling, and their replacements will be new panels. Unfortunately, there is not enough silver and possibly other precious metals available to build the millions of solar panels which will be required in the transition from fossil fuels, so new mines of all kinds will need to be developed.
Solar panels are vulnerable to high-speed hailstorms, despite their stated invulnerability to them. The 5.2 megawatt solar farm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska was turned into rubble from a high-speed hailstorm. So, power generated from politically incorrect fossil fuels will need to fill in the gap. The solar farm lasted only 4 years instead of its advertised life expectancy of 25 years. Its waste will end up in landfills, as recycling is still in its infancy with the first plant having opened in recycling leader France at the end of June. Recycling is expensive, so it is far cheaper currently to purchase newly manufactured panels, but there is unlikely to be enough of the precious metals needed for the energy transition to build that many solar panels. So far, the “energy transition” promising cheap, clean, and green energy is proving to be far from it. Americans will have to decide how much of the energy transition they are willing to pay for and endure.