Is solar power truly Green?

This question is important, because in today’s world, that which is Green is favored even if it is more expensive and less reliable. We have been taught that solar is Green. But does it pass the Three R’s Test that for 50 years has been the Green standard?

Legend has it that the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” entered the collective consciousness somewhere before or after the first national EARTH DAY in 1970. Shortly afterward, President Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Logic indicates that a Green product should therefore reusable (with reasonable effectiveness) or recyclable (at reasonable cost). If it is neither, then should we not ask whether we just need to reduce its supply (especially since solar energy is intermittent and still requires backup power)?

The EPA website, for example, notes that laptops and cell phones meet Green requirements. They note that recycling a million laptops saves enough energy to power more than 3,500 U.S. homes for a year. Also, for every million cell phones we recycle, we ca recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium.

The justification for massive subsidies in the past is essentially that, that just as parents have traditionally subsidized their children until they reach maturity, the $100 billion in subsidies provided to solar (and wind) energy have done their job.

America’s Power is now urging an end to renewable energy subsidies, based on Energy Information Agency data that claim the cost of solar photovoltaic capacity has fallen by 82 percent in the past decade. The EIA even claims solar (wind, too!) is cheaper than natural gas (though, of course, unlike wind and solar, gas plants operate 24/7/365).

Is Solar Waste Recyclable Today?

Here’s a news flash! Even its strongest advocates admit that economical recycling of solar panels is at least two decades away, while reusing deteriorating solar panels can be likened to giving your teenager a $500 car. In the United States today, discarded solar panels end up in landfills – which means they fail the Green requirement that a product be recyclable.

California, however, is in the process of implementing a new law that reclassifies solar panel waste as a subset of hazardous waste known as “universal waste.” This will enable generators of solar panel waste an entire year, rather than today’s 90 days, to move the waste to an off-site recycling facility.

This again begs the question: Is hazardous waste Green?

Let’s review. Way back in 2014, National Geographic was lamenting that n ot only the disposal, but also the manufacture, of solar panels (especially in China, where environmental standards have been less responsive to public outcry) generates hazardous waste. Back then, people were already realizing that recycling would remain an expensive option for at least two decades.

According to one expert cited in the article, who lamented that used up panels were being dumped into landfills, “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.”

But recycling has always been the dream, and slowly, still expensively, it is becoming a reality. A 2016 article in the Nikkei Asian Review cited projections from Japan’s Environment Ministry that the island nation will need to recycle 100,000 tons of solar panel waste in 2031 and three times that much two years later. The waste pile will rise to over 800,000 tons by 2040 – equivalent to 110,000 panels per day.

The magnitude of the coming panel-demic caused the Japanese government, in partnership with private companies and the state-backed New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, to seek innovative technologies to lower the costs of recycling of these complex devices. Yet, while many developed processes for separating the various, diverse components, they all admitted that it will quite a while until there are enough dead panels to lower costs.

Are Solar Panels Reusable?

When the article switched over to the “reuse” question, many readers may have been in for a shock. First was the admission that (unlike nuclear and fossil fuel power plants), the generating capacity of solar panels declines up to 4 percent every few years.

Thus, the author suggests that the already inefficient (solar generates almost no energy at night, during storms, or under heavy cloud cover) panels be pawned off for reuse to Africa where electricity grids do not exist.

After all, Africans (the author noted) only need to power a few household appliances to have a much higher standard of living. And, well, one can gain virtue signaling points even if the panels you are sending — to keep Africans from using fossil fuels and developing a REAL power grid — are defective.

But isn’t this just saying that reuse is not really an option? It is not as though you can just replace the mother board or the battery and the old panel would be anywhere near as good as new.

The Third R

A recent Reuters article discussing the latest round of California power outages concluded that, “recent events show California’s power grid failed the reliability test, the top priority for suppliers and grid operators given electricity’s importance to the modern economy.”

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) power grid was unable to meet peak demand over a two-day period this August. PG&E acknowledged that about 220,000 customers lost power two nights in a row. What might be the problem?

My colleague Larry Bell has noted that a new California mandate requires that 60 percent of the state’s electricity be supplied by wind and solar by 2030 – just a decade away – and thus power providers have already begun cutting back on fossil fuel use.

Reuters market analyst John Kemp concluded that because the output of solar (and wind) generators is determined by external factors (time of day, season, and weather conditions), they are not responsive to the needs of the power grid. Gas-fired power plants are, he says, ideally suited for peak management because they can ramp their output up or down rapidly.

Thus, the insistence of California and other would-be Green-seeking governments makes the power grid less flexible and lowers its reliability.

To recap, reusing deteriorating solar panels means providing very low quality energy. Recycling solar panels only becomes economically viable with vastly increased market penetration. Yet, greater the reliance on solar (and wind) for electricity generation, the greater the likelihood of rolling blackouts, especially in both very hot and very cold weather.

The obvious conclusion is, first, that solar panel waste is not Green, and second, that states need to REDUCE their pie-in-the-sky goals to totally eliminate the use of both fossil fuels and nuclear energy – because solar (and wind) cannot cut the mustard.

See also for another take on why solar energy is not an acceptable Green solution to clean power.


  • Duggan Flanakin

    Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."