Solar Panels: Devise Ways to Prepare for ‘Era of Mass Disposal’

Solar panels that were installed for power generation around the country will reach the end of their useful life in the 2030s and beyond. The central government should take all possible measures from now on to prepare for the “era of mass disposal” of these panels.

In 2012, the government launched a system under which electric power companies are required to purchase electricity generated from renewable energy sources, such as solar power, at fixed prices.

Because the government prioritized the spread of renewable energy and initially set a high price for purchasing the electricity, many rushed to get into the business of solar power generation, the equipment for which is easy to set up. There are about 730,000 government-approved projects for installing panels for business use nationwide.

However, as the useful life of panels is estimated at about 20 to 30 years, many panels will reach the end of that period in 2030 or later. Disposal of the panels, which amounted to about 3,000 tons in 2020, is expected to increase to a maximum of 280,000 tons a year in the 2030s and beyond.

In anticipation of this massive enterprise, the government must get solar power generation operators to thoroughly promote measures to properly dispose of their panels. Even now, some panels that were damaged by heavy snowfall, typhoons or other causes have been abandoned in place or illegally dumped.

In fiscal 2022, the government initiated a system under which a reserve fund of about 4% to 7% of monthly electricity sales revenue is collected from solar power generation operators, depending on the scale of the business. The money will be refunded when panels are disposed of.

However, it has been pointed out that the reserve fund alone may not be sufficient in some cases. For example, disposal costs for panels set up in mountainous areas are relatively high. The government needs to reexamine the effectiveness of the reserve fund system to ensure that disposal is carried out without fail.

Currently, most of the used panels are put in landfills, but the panels contain silver, copper, glass and other materials that can be reused. It is vital to strengthen efforts to recover and recycle these materials.

This is expected to prevent panels that can no longer generate electricity from being illegally dumped or left abandoned.

To expand the reuse of these materials, it is necessary to improve the technology to recover metals and materials at low cost. The government and companies should strengthen their cooperation to accelerate research and development of recycling technologies.

To promote recycling efficiently, it is desirable for companies that can conduct recycling across the country to undertake such business. Currently, when companies intend to engage in recycling, they have to obtain permission from each local government, but the central government is planning legal revisions that will allow it to grant a blanket permission to make it easier for such companies to expand their recycling businesses nationwide.

It is necessary to encourage motivated companies to expand their business areas, and major firms from other industries to enter the market.

It is important to develop the spread of proper disposal and recycling into the steady renewal of solar power generation facilities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 28, 2024)