Recycling Solar Panels a Reality

October 10, 2020

North Carolina State University – Health and Safety Aspects of Solar Photovoltaics:

Concerns about the volume, disposal, toxicity, and recycling of PV panels are addressed in this subsection. To put the volume of PV waste into perspective, consider that by 2050, when PV systems installed in 2020 will reach the end of their lives, it is estimated that the global annual PV panel waste tonnage will be 10% of the 2014 global e-waste tonnage.

In the U.S., end-of-life disposal of solar products is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA),as wellasstate policies in some situations.RCRA separates waste into hazardous (not accepted at ordinary landfill) and solid waste (generally accepted at ordinary landfill) based on a series of rules. According to RCRA, the way to determine if a PV panel is classified as hazardous waste is the Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test. This EPA test is designed to simulate landfill disposal and determine the risk of hazardous substances leaching out of the landfill.

Multiple sources report that most modern PV panels (both crystalline silicon and cadmium telluride) pass the TCLP test.

Fast Company:

The global surge in solar power is helping quickly lower the cost of solar panels and shrink energy’s carbon footprint, with around 70,000 solar panels being installed every hour by 2018, and an estimated 1.47 million solar panels in place by that year in the U.S. alone. But it also means that we’ll face an enormous pile of e-waste when those panels eventually wear out.

By the early 2030s, as one large wave of solar panels is reaching the end of life, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that there could be as much as 8 million metric tons of total solar panel waste. By 2050, that could jump to as much as 78 million metric tons of cumulative waste. “We’re looking at an emerging waste stream which has the potential to go to pretty large volumes over the next decade,” says Andreas Wade, who leads global sustainability for First Solar, a solar panel manufacturer that is taking on the problem with a circular approach.

At a recycling plant in Ohio, next to the company’s manufacturing facility, First Solar uses custom technology to disassemble and recycle old panels, recovering 90% of the materials inside. It runs similar recycling systems in Germany and Malaysia. Right now, the holistic lifecycle approach isn’t common among other solar producers. But Wade says that now is the time to think about the problem. “Our aim for solar is to help our customers decouple their economic growth from negative environmental impacts,” he says. “So it is kind of a mandatory point for us to address the renewable-energy-circular-economy nexus today and not 20 years from now.”

The E.U. requires solar producers to recycle products, and similar laws are in the works in some other parts of the world, including Japan and India. In the U.S., so far, only the State of Washington requires solar panel recycling; the majority of old solar panels in the country end up in landfills now, wasting valuable materials such as silicon and risking the spread of toxic components such as lead.

By recycling materials, the total environmental impact of each panel drops. The original solar panel, Wade says, might last 30 or even 40 years. If 95% of the semiconductor material can be recovered and put back in a new panel, and the cycle continues to repeat, the original material could stay in use as long as 1,200 years. At the moment, because of the huge demand for solar panels and the fact that many haven’t yet reached the end of their life, the total percentage of recycled material in the company’s new panels is low. But it will grow over time.

As the industry progresses, recycling options are also likely to grow. At industrial-scale solar farms, Wade predicts that mobile recycling units will start to be used, helping alleviate the challenge of shipping heavy, glass-covered solar panels to a distant recycling plant. (Current transportation costs can be so large that some in the industry say that it can be difficult to make recycling cost-effective.)

Now, some large buyers of solar power are beginning to think more about solar’s total impact. When GM recently signed an agreement to buy power from a new solar development as part of its effort to move to 100% renewable energy, for example, it decided to work with First Solar because the company was working on the sustainability of the whole supply chain.

UPDATE: Here’s another company recycling solar.

We Recycle Solar:

We Recycle Solar is innovating the lifecycle management process for your photovoltaic devices. We bring decades of expertise in asset recovery and electronics recycling to the solar industry, acting as your single-source disposal provider for excess, recalled, and end-of-life solar products such as panels, energy storage, and more.

We Recycle Solar is proud to partner with the industry’s leading utilities, O & M professionals, manufacturers, and contractors in a range of projects from coast to coast.

Through the environmentally responsible, client-focused solutions that We Recycle Solar delivers, our clients benefit from increased value from their end-of-life products, complete compliance at the state, federal, and global level, and total brand protection from the perils of an open gray market.

7 Responses to “Recycling Solar Panels a Reality”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    Anyone who works in the semiconductor industry knows that semiconductors must never end up in a landfill. (Some semiconductors employ arsenic as doping agent although I have never heard of it used in solar cells).

    • A lot of old phones clearly are going into landfills along with their batteries, many of which are no longer removable.

    • Indeed. I concur.

      I would like to inform all of you that for some reason, the video entitled “What is the End of Life for Solar Panels?” is only mono and not stereo, since there is only sound in the left speaker and no sound in the right. When I listened to the second video. the same problem presented itself.

      Happy Sunday to you!

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “… by 2050, when PV systems installed in 2020 will reach the end of their lives…”

    Except they won’t.

    PV panels may have a 30 year warranty, but that doesn’t mean they will reach the end of their useful lives. The degradation rates of modern panels indicates a useful lifespan of about 125 years. And “useful lifespan” is defined as merely losing 20% of faceplate output. IOW, still putting out 80% of their rated output.

    There are, in fact, PV panels from the 1970’s which are still putting out nearly 100% of their faceplate rating.

    Think about what all this implies about whether, in our RE future, publicly-owned PV farms should even bother charging customers for electricity.

  3. Sustain blog Says:

    Recycling solar panels would be a good thing. Thank you 😊

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