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| 07/06/17

Solar power and mining: clean, yes, but could be cleaner


As solar power experiences a global boom, Canadian mining companies are set to profit from the growing demand for the raw materials needed in the manufacture of photovoltaic panels. But while Canadian mining operations are among the least carbon-intensive in the world, they and solar equipment manufacturers still need to clean up their act.

This is the conclusion of a new analysis from Simon Fraser University-based think-tank Clean Energy Canada exploring the opportunities and challenges of solar for the Canadian mining sector, which includes some of the largest mining companies in the world.

Last year, the solar industry had a banner year, with 73 gigawatts of capacity built worldwide. This is creating a sharp increase in demand for the metals and minerals used in photovoltaic manufacture. Canada is home to 14 of the 19 metals and minerals needed to make a PV panel, six of them so-called ‘critical’ materials, meaning that they are particularly crucial to their manufacture but suffer from supply challenges such as geopolitical risk and a lack of supply diversity. These include copper for wiring, indium, lead, silica, silver, cadmium, tellurium and coal (used to make steel), and some of these metals are co-produced with zinc and gold.

Copper especially is an essential material not just for solar, but across a range of clean technologies, needed for wind turbines, power transmission lines and wiring in electric vehicles—which need four times as much copper as conventional vehicles. Primary global copper demand could grow by 43 percent over current levels by 2035. Canada has the world’s 10th-largest copper reserves, and was the world’s eighth-largest producer in 2016.

A 2012 full life-cycle analysis by Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada of solar energy found that PV technologies “in general, have fewer negative environmental impacts” than fossil-fuel-based electricity production.  The investigation did however note that toxic waste from heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and other chemicals arising from decommissioning at the end of their useful life (25-30 years on average) remains an environmental challenge.

As the first major PV installations occurred in the early 1990s, an increasing number of PV modules will reach the end of their life in the coming years. Last November, the Japanese environment ministry warned that by 2020, the country’s solar-panel waste will hit 10,000 tonnes, and peak at 810,000 tonnes in 2040. To dispose of that amount in one year, would mean junking or recycling some 110,000 panels a day.

In June, a California-based clean energy think-tank, Environmental Progress, found that US households with solar roofs will produce 30-60 percent more electronic waste than those without, and that solar produces 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear plants per unit of energy.

Thankfully, most PV components can be recycled. The European Union is ahead of the game internationally, requiring as of 2014 the collection, transport and recycling of used photovoltaic panels.

The SFU authors also noted efforts by industry towards sustainable mining practices but said stringent regulations, rather than voluntary measures, are needed.

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Climate news and analysis that's relevant for you, every week.