The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it

National Observer

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By Leigh Matthews

#5 of 5 articles from the Special Report: A green stimulus package for Canada

Renewable energy sources, like solar, are key parts of Canada's net-zero strategy, but this push is unsustainable without regulations governing hazardous e-waste, resource extraction and recycling. Photo iSolara Solar Power

Giant solar farms have been widely heralded as great news for green energy in Canada. But is solar energy really sustainable? In the clamour to promote solar panels, there has been a conspicuous silence about the environmental costs of production and what happens to all those panels at end of life.

In 2020, Canada’s solar sector is expected to produce 700 metric tonnes of waste from decommissioned solar panels. By 2030, that figure could rise to 13,000 metric tonnes, yet Canada has no dedicated solar panel recycling facility, nor any incentives for sustainable manufacturing. Where do all these dead solar panels go, and what is Canada doing, if anything, to plan for the tsunami of e-waste to come?

The status of solar panel recycling in Canada

Most solar panels have a lifespan of around 25 years, which means early adopters are now facing the problem of how to dispose of them. While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.

PV (photovoltaic) waste will be an increased problem over time if an effective recycling solution is not found. Graphic by GreenMatch, 2017

“We are not equipped to properly recycle metals and minerals we use in our daily lives, let alone the massive mineral boom coming up with the energy transition demand (EV cars, wind, solar, storage),” says Ugo Lapointe, the Canadian program co-ordinator of MiningWatch Canada.

Lapointe adds that governments play a “massive role” in putting “proper legislations, policies and supporting infrastructures” into place.

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