The dark side of solar power

By | June 21, 2021

Atalay Atasu, Serasu Duran, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove write:

It’s sunny times for solar power. In the U.S., home installations of solar panels have fully rebounded from the Covid slump, with analysts predicting more than 19 gigawatts of total capacity installed, compared to 13 gigawatts at the close of 2019. Over the next 10 years, that number may quadruple, according to industry research data. And that’s not even taking into consideration the further impact of possible new regulations and incentives launched by the green-friendly Biden administration.

Solar’s pandemic-proof performance is due in large part to the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which defrays 26% of solar-related expenses for all residential and commercial customers (just down from 30% during 2006-2019). After 2023, the tax credit will step down to a permanent 10% for commercial installers and will disappear entirely for home buyers. Therefore, sales of solar will probably burn even hotter in the coming months, as buyers race to cash in while they still can.

Tax subsidies are not the only reason for the solar explosion. The conversion efficiency of panels has improved by as much as 0.5% each year for the last 10 years, even as production costs (and thus prices) have sharply declined, thanks to several waves of manufacturing innovation mostly driven by industry-dominant Chinese panel producers. For the end consumer, this amounts to far lower up-front costs per kilowatt of energy generated.

This is all great news, not just for the industry but also for anyone who acknowledges the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for the sake of our planet’s future. But there’s a massive caveat that very few are talking about.

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. [Continue reading…]

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