The solar photovoltaic (PV) market took off around 2016, with record panel installations. The same year, a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency predicted up to 78 million metric tons of solar panel waste will accrue over the coming decades as a result of that boom. More recently, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) dialed back that number, lowering expectations of solar waste to somewhere between 54 and 160 million metric tons.
Regardless of exactly how many tons it amounts to, the issue of potentially toxic trash from solar panels is a serious issue.
Most solar panels are made in China and have a life expectancy of 25–30 years. The majority of the panels currently in use were installed in the last decade, but more installations are anticipated, particularly as the cost has come down due to federal incentives, new technology and increased demand. That means more PV waste in the years ahead.
Solar panels consist of sheets of glass and plastic polymer covered in silicon rectangles—the semiconductors that do the work of converting sunlight to electricity. Held together by an aluminum frame, these panels may also contain copper, silver or other metals, such as lead, which makes disposal difficult. Because of that, most solar panels end up in landfills; only about 10% are recycled.
Without federal guidelines for recycling solar panels, each state has designed its own regulations. On top of the inconsistency in recycling rules is the cost: according to a March 2021 report from the NREL, the cost to recycle a panel ranges from $15 to $45, while the cost to throw it away amounts to just a few dollars.
Adding to the cost is transportation of solar panels to recycling facilities. Companies such as We Recycle Solar store panels in regional warehouses until sufficient quantities have accumulated to justify the cost of shipping them to their recycling center in Arizona.
As more panels reach end-of-life status, and as the demand for materials increases and technology improves, expect more solar recycling. John Gilkeson with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency believes it will take federal policy to find a solution to solar waste “because people are not going to do anything that they do not have to do.”
He called letting the free market or the industry manage the situation “wish-cycling” because “the market will drive to the cheapest option, which is going to be landfilling.” Instead, he hopes for a coordinated reuse and recycling system with consistent rules.
In addition to federal regulation, Gilkeson suggests funding reuse and recycling take-back programs up front, and he urges the industry to support these efforts.
About The Author
Lori Lovely is an award-winning writer and editor in central Indiana. She writes on technical topics, heavy equipment, automotive, motorsports, energy, water and wastewater, animals, real estate, home improvement, gardening and more. Reach her at: [email protected]