In gratitude

Posted 11/7/23

While every day seems to bring stories of technological advances as well as heroic efforts to heal the natural world, two captured my imagination in recent weeks.  In keeping with the season, …

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In gratitude


While every day seems to bring stories of technological advances as well as heroic efforts to heal the natural world, two captured my imagination in recent weeks.  In keeping with the season, both made me feel hopeful for the future and grateful for the extraordinary work of scientists in a range of disciplines.  

The first provides a fresh perspective that debunks some stubborn myths about solar panel waste and potential toxicity. Researchers affiliated with National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO and the Colorado School of Mines created best- and worst-case scenarios for the accumulated waste from PV systems from 2016 to 2050. This was compared to accumulated waste over the same period from fossil fuels (coal ash, oily sludge from petroleum production), municipal solid waste, plastic waste and e-waste such as phones and computers. 

They found that the life expectancy of solar panels has increased from 12 years in 2016 to 35 years today, and panel efficiency has risen dramatically. These factors result in significant reductions in waste per unit of power produced. 

Manufacturers are employing circular strategies including materials recovery, panel repair and refurbishment, and second-market strategies to enhance sustainability and reduce waste. The study scenarios demonstrate that the potential volume of waste from retired PV panels is dwarfed by anticipated waste from all other sources over the 35 years of the study period (2016 to 2050). For example, following the current trend, coal ash waste would be 300 to 800 times larger than the volume of PV waste, and oily sludge waste generated by fossil fuel energy would be two to five times greater. 

“In fact, we globally produce and manage approximately the same mass of coal ash per month as the amount of PV module waste we expect to produce over the next 35 years,” according to the study. 

And we already know that both coal ash and oily sludge are toxic. In contrast, the study found that concerns about toxic materials such as arsenic, gallium, germanium, hexavalent chromium or perfluoroalkyl substances in solar panels generally stem from data on 1970s-era experimentation for devices that were never mass-produced, and from specialty applications like solar technology for the aerospace industry—not our present-day backyard, community or utility-scale solar arrays. 

“In fact,” the study concludes, the “two most common types of PV contain almost none of these harmful materials.”  While trace amounts of lead in solder remain a potential source of toxicity, manufacturers are phasing it out in favor of lead-free solders. 

I was also heartened by a recent story by Lydia Larsen, writing for Inside Climate, who reported last month on a new study of Atlantic puffin populations on the remote Norwegian islands of Røst, Spitsbergen and Bjørnøy, that provides hope for adaptation strategies that could help these beloved birds survive. The threat is severe:  the island of Røst was once the world’s largest puffin breeding colony. Climate stress has reduced the number of breeding pairs by 80 percent over the past 40 years. The puffin population on Røst has dropped from 2.8 million to only 208,500.

On the neighboring island of Bjørnøya, researchers have discovered a new hybrid population of the subspecies historically native to the islands of Spitsbergen and Bjørnøy.  After intensive genomic study, including genetic analysis of historic specimens from the Natural History Museum in Stockholm and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the researchers concluded that the hybridization has taken place within the past 100 years, “coinciding with the rapid 20th-century climate change in the Arctic.” 

It’s a complicated story full of surprises for the researchers.  For one thing, it appears to be the first population-scale hybridization to be documented so precisely. For another, the general pattern of climate migration for an Arctic species would be northward, seeking similar conditions and food resources.  But for the Spitsbergen puffins, there was no land mass further north that could sustain them; Bjørnøya to the south was the closest viable option. 

Hybridization can weaken a species’ genetic diversity, but researchers report that so far the colony seems to be thriving.  Who knows—the migration journey of the Spitsbergen puffins may turn out to be one of the great success stories of the climate crisis, a triumph of courage and cooperation to achieve survival.  If there’s hope for the puffins, maybe we can learn from their example.


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