How can small-scale solar systems reduce e-waste and support communities?

July 2, 2024


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Most people don’t know that behind huge renewable energy projects lies a hidden cost—e-waste from solar panels. This is becoming a significant problem in places like India, where solar energy investment is booming. With a lifespan that lasts between 25 and 30 years, we are now discovering that this energy alternative has become one of the largest contributors to modern e-waste. 

This isn’t expected to slow down as countries worldwide continue to announce new renewable energy projects in the years to come. For example, Waree Energies, an India-based solar panel company, recently announced it would establish its first U.S. solar module manufacturing facility in Texas, which is looking to open its door by 2025.

The rush to build large-scale projects often prioritizes growth over sustainability. However, there’s a better approach: empowering communities and individuals through smaller-scale solar solutions.

Let’s examine how solar panels contribute to major e-waste and how the sector can channel solutions to this issue.

Big e-waste contributors

Solar panels are commonly referred to as a green technology, yet their environmental footprint extends beyond their operational phase. Past its lifecycle, this technology pollutes before going to market with a wasteful production process and a polluting afterlife.

The production of solar panels involves extracting and processing raw materials such as silicon, silver, and various rare earth elements—a process that is energy-intensive and generates significant emissions. In fact, experts say the waste will be more costly than the impact on electricity production.

The end-of-life stage of solar panels also presents a significant challenge. While the lifespan of a solar panel is typically 25-30 years, disposal and recycling infrastructure is not adequately developed, yet it requires very meticulous processes to avoid causing environmental and health risks. Many panels end up in landfills, racking up e-waste. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), planet Earth could see larger amounts of annual solar panel waste by the early 2030s, projecting a total of 28 million tonnes by 2025.

Unfortunately, reusing solar panels hasn’t provided much of a solution to the growing problem, including for residential purposes. Used panels, which may have reduced efficiency, don’t offer significant savings. With installation costs and other equipment making up about half the cost of a residential solar array, the marginal savings on used panels do not justify their lower output. Thankfully, modern solar panels have become more affordable and efficient, providing an incentive for residential properties to replace existing ones and for other homeowners to join the solar energy revolution.

As a temporary solution, many expired solar panels are being sent to developing countries to power water pumps for farming in low-income communities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mitigate the overall environmental impact it poses in the near future.

Investing in Smaller-Scale Solutions

Investing in smaller-scale and community-focused solutions is a promising strategy to mitigate the e-waste issue while still benefiting from solar technology. 

In the first half of 2023, $358 billion was invested in the renewable energy sector, with $335 billion directed towards project deployment through asset finance and small-scale solar initiatives. This approach emphasizes producing just the right amount of energy needed for specific applications, reducing the excess and waste associated with large-scale installations.

In recent years, supporting small-scale initiatives has proven to be a valuable approach to tackling the issue. A recent study comparing large and small solar PV systems confirmed that small-scale solar solutions are less environmentally harmful than large-scale solar systems. 

Additionally, smaller solar panels can effectively meet the needs of communities with limited access to reliable power sources. These panels can provide essential services like lighting, which is crucial for safety and running daily activities. 

For example, our team at Techko Group witnessed first-hand the impact a small-scale solar solution can have on a community—the Taiwanese Atayal Tribe. During a heavy storm, our solar-powered lights enabled their local school to continue its Halloween costume parade despite power outages, showcasing localized solar projects’ immediate and practical benefits.

Prioritizing small-scale, community-driven projects can meet local energy needs without the downsides of large-scale installations. An example of successful implementation can be seen in various regions like Africa, where off-grid solar solutions have provided reliable electricity to remote villages, enhancing quality of life and economic opportunities without contributing significantly to e-waste.

While intentional practices in clean tech production are required, including government regulations and efficient recycling programs, investing in smaller communities is another step in fostering sustainable development. Localized solar projects reduce the technology’s environmental impact by cutting down on transportation emissions, avoiding massive waste, and providing tailored energy solutions that match the community’s needs. For renewable energy solutions like solar, it’s all about starting small before going big.

Article authored by Ted Ko, President of The Techko Group

This article includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company


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