The Dark Side of the Sun: Solar Power and Global Electronic Waste

04/23/2015 12:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

When complete, First Solar's California Flats project will generate enough electricity to power Apple's Cupertino headquarters complex, as well as its California stores and data centers. Many have hailed this agreement as a first step toward more widespread commercial adoption of solar power. After all, how can any company go wrong traveling in the footsteps of Apple? Energy that is less expensive, clean, water-efficient. A feel-good moment!

First Solar and Apple still have yet to answer a very important question, however. What will happen to the electronic waste?

What waste, ye say? Well, let me tell ye about the waste.

The California Flats Project, while only about the half the size of First Solar's Topaz Farm (the world's largest), will occupy nearly 3,000 acres of land (about 4.6 square miles) in the southeast corner of Monterey County, sufficient to generate solar power for the equivalent of 100,000 homes each year.

First Solar's Topaz Solar Farm contains 9 million PV modules.

Solar is very surface-intensive. One interesting estimate calculates the surface area required to power the planet's electricity needs in 2030 would blanket the entirety of Spain (lower estimates exist for global electricity demand as of 2010). You would need three hours to walk the circumference of the California Flats project site. Assuming comparable density, we would need 30,000 such solar farms to power the planet, and it would take you 40 years (based on a 40-hour week) to walk the circumference of all 30,000 sites.

Hang on to that 30,000 figure. We'll return to it shortly.

To power this equivalent of 100,000 homes on its California Flats project site, on behalf of the electricity needs of Apple and PG&E, First Solar will need to install about 5 million PV modules, each about the size and weight of a 48-inch flat panel television. So a stack-equivalent of 5 million televisions rising 1,000 miles into the sky. Weighing 150 million pounds, Which is one-third the total of all of the digital products Apple has recycled in its history.

Solar PV Waste

First Solar's thin-film modules are made using Cadmium-Telluride (CdTe). The CdTe technology offers the promise of more energy-efficient, more flexible solar cells. However, CdTe represents a synthesis of two extremely toxic chemicals. The purpose of this article is not make any claims about the public health risks posed by the CdTe in the First Solar PV modules (for this debate, see my article, "First Solar's Inconvenient Truth"). What I would like to point out, however, is that we are talking about 50 tons of CdTe spread evenly across 3,000 acres of land.

What will happen to these modules at the end of the useful life of the California Flats project (estimated to be about 25-30 years)? This is an important question, because to avoid laying waste to the land, First Solar and Apple and PG&E will need to assume responsibility for what's called mitigation -- disassembling the solar farm, removing and recycling the 5 million PV modules, and restoring the land to some facsimile of its prior state.

In 2008, First Solar company established a pre-funded recycling process that firmly established its leadership in the emerging conversation about appropriate producer responsibilities for solar energy's external costs. Between July 2008 and November 2009, the company's description of itself in press releases notably included this sentence: "First Solar set the benchmark for environmentally responsible product life cycle management by introducing the industry's first pre-funded, comprehensive collection and recycling program for solar modules."

In 2012, First Solar abandoned its commitment to pre-funded collection and recycling, shifting the burden of responsibility for managing the entire life-cycle of its solar farms largely to its clients. The company's 2014 10-K annual report disclosed, "The percentage of modules sold that were subject to our solar module collection and recycling liability was 56 percent and 99 percent for the years ended December 31, 2014 and 2013 , respectively." First Solar denies the end of its pre-funding commitment represents a step back from its focus on environmental responsibility, but of course it does. Solar technology is a subset of the semiconductor and electronics industries, and because of the size and quantity of the surface area covered by its panels, is poised to create more electronic waste in the 21st century than any other technology sector.

We've projected ultimate need for 30,000 solar farms equivalent to the California Flats project to meet global electricity demand by 2030. Using the California Flats installation as a benchmark, we can estimate that provisioning all 30,000 of these solar installations worldwide would require 150 billion modules, an unfathomably large quantity that, stacked, would weigh nearly 5 trillion pounds (2.5 billion tons) and stretch 30 million miles into space, or almost one-third of the way toward its power source, the sun. By comparison, total numbers of solar panels deployed globally to date probably don't exceed 2 billion.

These projections are undoubtedly too high. Solar will not be the world's only power source in 2030. Solar cell efficiencies will undoubtedly improve significantly in the next 15 years. So let's (generously) reduce the 150 billion estimate by two-thirds, to 50 billion modules requiring fabrication, installation, management, and eventually decommissioning, collection, and recycling by 2060, less than 50 years from now. To put these numbers in perspective, the total weight of the solar PV modules for which we can reasonably expect deployment would exceed by a factor of 20 the 40 million tons of electronics waste generated globally in 2014 (most of which was not recycled). And these numbers only focus on PV installations through 2030.

So clearly we need to be mindful of the electronic waste risks associated with solar power, and we need to fold this awareness into our assessment of any high-profile project that accues significant public relations and financial benefits to the companies involved. Apple and First Solar both stand to gain enormously from the California Flats project. But what's in the deal for the public if these companies do not assume, up front, the known costs of collecting and recycling the 5 million PV modules on the project site?

Electronic Waste.Ghana (Bit Rot Project)

The track record for power plant decommissioning and toxic waste disposal, in the United States and elsewhere, indicates we should place no confidence in the assurances, verbal or written, of the companies that initiate, finance, construct, and profit from these projects. In general, these companies receive most of the benefits, but are able to shift the costs, in the form of litigation and clean-up expenses, to the public. For these reasons, the European Union imposed mandatory producer recycling rules for solar modules in 2012 (one of the reasons First Solar pretty much exited the European market and abandoned its own prefunding commitments in 2012), and most recently the Japanese government has announced the decision to draft new rules covering disposal and recycling of decommissioned solar and wind power facilities. In the case of Japan, the government has grown frustrated with problems of illegal dumping as equipment ages and breaks, and unsuccessful operators (of which there have been many) exit the industry under financial duress.

Prior to commencement of operations of the California Flats project, First Solar must submit a comprehensive recycling/disposal plan, including cost estimates, to Monterey County. The company must also post a bond with the county consistent with cost estimates. This requirement offers some reassurance. However, it is worth noting that as a result of its comments on the draft environmental impact report, First Solar was able to shift the sequencing of the submission of this report so that it was no longer a condition for issuance of the construction permits, but only a condition for issuance of operational permits. Given the momentum behind this project, one has to wonder what it would really take to prevent operations from commencing once construction is complete. Moreover, while First Solar emphasizes that the value of the materials in its panels creates powerful incentives to recycle as much of this material as possible, the test for the durability of any recycling commitment is really what happens if energy technologies evolve over the next 30 years and the materials have diminished value while the environmental impact of 5 million modules remains the same.

First Solar and Apple have publicly assumed the role of environmental stewards. All to the good. And they will deserve whatever benefits fall to them if they properly exercise their stewardship. The companies have the opportunity to set the standard for commercial adoption of solar, which would transform the economy and our nation's energy consumption habits. But this standard must include explicit assumption of liabilities, including prefunding of these liabilities. To this degree, the obligations of First Solar and Apple are no different than the obligations of private companies that have assumed pension fund liabilities. One might say that solar PV collection, recycling, and disposal obligations for producers are fiduciary.