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The trail left by photovoltaic cells when they die: despite solar optimism, there are problems that we still cannot solve

Worldwide, according to Our World in Data, photovoltaic solar energy represents just under 4% of supply And yet, there is no doubt that it is an unstoppable trend. Since 2016, it is the world’s fastest growing source of energy.

So much so that the manufacture of photovoltaic cells already consumes 40% of the planet’s tellurium production, 15% of silver and much of the quartz. It also consumes a considerable part of the indium, zinc, gallium and tin production. And it is a demand that does not seem to stop growing.

And, of course, on the shoulders of promises of clean, abundant and cheap energy, sometimes we forget to ask ourselves some questions. The most obvious is … Where do photovoltaic cells go when they die? And, what is worse, what are we going to do with them?


When the far future is closer than it seems

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Now, now. We are all aware that we are talking about a problem on the horizon. After all, these systems have a half-life of decades and, precisely for this reason, it may seem like a problem that is projected into the distant future. However, as soon as we do the math, the question about the future of cells becomes more pertinent than ever.

As calculated by Dustin Mulvaney and Morgan D. Bazilian today, all electronic waste (mobile, portable, etc …) constitutes about 45 million metric tons per yearbut, by 2050, only waste from solar cells will be the double of that amount. That is, the problem will be on the table sooner than we suspect.

The problem is that, despite attempts to design recyclable cells, the vast majority of the industry is in another race. In growing the installed photovoltaic without thinking about these types of problems. On your side, governments also don’t have in mind toughen regulations (focused as they are on reducing emissions as soon as possible).

This, which seems reasonable given the current energy context, is precisely what makes us suspect that we will have an even bigger problem in the future. And also ensuring that in order to “cheap materials”, urban mining will be responsible for sustaining a good part of the technological world. In other words, as Dustin Mulvaney and Morgan D. Bazilian explain, what we are losing is precious time that we could invest in not generating problems that we still cannot solve.

Cover image | The Dead Crew