By Paul Homewood

How often do we hear that solar power is cheap and clean?

Michael Shellenberger bursts that bubble!


Three years ago I published a long article at Forbes arguing that solar panels weren’t clean but in fact produced 300 times more toxic waste than high-level nuclear waste. But in contrast to nuclear waste, which is safely stored and never hurts anyone, solar panel waste risks exposing poor trash-pickers in sub-Saharan Africa. The reason was because it was so much cheaper to make new solar panels from raw materials than to recycle them, and would remain that way, given labor and energy costs.

My reporting was near-universally denounced. The most influential financial analyst of the solar industry called my article, “a fine example of ‘prove RE [renewable energy] is terrible by linking lots of reports which don’t actually support your point but do show that the RE industry in the West considers and documents its limited impacts extremely thoroughly.’” An energy analyst who is both pro-nuclear and pro-solar agreed with her, saying “I looked into this waste issue in the past and concur with [her].”


“The volume of solar panel waste will destroy the economics of solar .  The cost would catapult to four times the current projection.”


The Guardian said solar panel waste was a “somewhat ironic concern from [me], a proponent of nuclear power, which has a rather bigger toxic waste problem” adding that “broken panels… are relatively rare except perhaps in the wake of a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake.”

But when reporters eventually looked into the issue they came to the same conclusions I had. In 2019, The New York Times published a long article about toxic old solar panels and batteries causing “harm to people who scavenge recyclable materials by hand” in poor African communities. In 2020, Discover magazine confirmed that “it is often cheaper to discard them in landfills or send them to developing countries. As solar panels sit in dumps, the toxic metals they contain can leach out into the environment and possibly pose a public health hazard if they get into the groundwater supply.”

Still, each of those articles stressed that some solar panels were already being recycled, and that more of them one day would be, which was what many of my original critics had pointed out. “The European Union requires solar companies to collect and recycle their panels,” noted Discover magazine, “with the cost of recycling built into the selling price.” The solar analyst who accused me of making unsubstantiated claims said the reason “there are few solar panels being recycled to date [is] because most of them are still working fine.”


“Solar panels are delicate and break easily. When they do, they instantly become hazardous, and classified as such, due to their heavy metal contents. “


But a major new study of the economics of solar, published in Harvard Business Review (HBR), finds that the waste produced by solar panels will make electricity from solar panels four times more expensive than the world’s leading energy analysts thought. “The economics of solar,” write Atalay Atasu and Luk N. Van Wassenhove of Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires, one of Europe’s leading business schools, and Serasu Duran of the University of Calgary, will “darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.”

Full story here.


June 23, 2021