Solar PV

Problem

Renewable energy installations such as wind and solar are on the rise. In fact, solar photovoltaic (PV) is the fastest growing renewable energy source in the world due in part to lower production and installation costs and increased efficiency.

click on the graph to view the source website for accessible graph

As is common with fast growing markets, little thought has been given until recently to end-of-life disposal considerations for solar panels. Currently, solar panel disposal makes up only a small percentage of the number being installed. The majority of solar panel disposal at the present is due to damage to the panels during transportation and installation or from severe weather events. However, with the typical life span of a solar panel being 20 to 30 years, we will see a sharp spike in the number of solar panels needing disposal beginning in 2030 and thereafter. Where will used solar panels end up?

solar panelssolar panel field being installed. tractor equipment pounding posts into the ground. posts hold the solar panels up.

Lack of PV Disposal Regulations and Materials

As of 2017, there are no national regulations requiring solar panels to be recycled even though solar panels are made up of the some of the same materials as other electronics that have been banned from landfills. Commercial entities must follow the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and state policies for solar panel disposal as many panels can contain hazardous metals such as cadmium, silver, and arsenic. Residential solar panels have no regulations for disposal. Most are taken back by the installers for disposal.

tractor pushing trash around on a gigantic trash pile in a landfill

Solutions

There are several different types of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels (modules). But all solar PV modules generally consist of at least 75% glass, 10% aluminum (framing), and the rest is metals (some rare earth metals), sealants, and conductor compounds. Most of these materials are highly recyclable and some are non-renewable. So why do people send solar modules to the landfill?

Mostly it is because people are not aware that there are other options available. To reduce the waste of valuable resources, let’s consider the full picture. When we do this, solutions to the question of what happens to solar modules at the end of their life can be thought of in three main categories:

  • Education & Training
  • Repair & Reuse
  • Recycling

Education & Training

Proper education and training for solar installers and customers can increase the life expectancy of solar PV systems and encourage proper end-of-life disposal. It is important for solar installers to discuss with customers an operation and maintenance (O&M) plan that will enhance the performance and extend the life of the solar system. Manufactures can also take more responsibility by clearly describing how to responsibly dispose of modules at the end-of-life. Educating installers and customers about end-of-life options besides landfills such as repurposing and recycling will also result in less landfilling.

Repair & Reuse

Commercial solar farms contracts usually have a set performance requirements for solar equipment. If a module falls below the required equipment warranty, then it is repaired or replaced. If corrective maintenance cannot resolve the performance issues then the module could be removed and reused by those who are not concerned about the decreases in the performance of the system. The modules could be sold or donated. Some of these entities might be non-profit organizations, churches, schools, or homeowners. But currently there is no state or nation-wide network set up to connect solar module refurbishers with many of these entities at this time. Organizations such as the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) and the national Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) are groups that are interested in working on this issue.

Recycling

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) less than 1% of decommissioned solar modules are currently being recycled. With the large number of solar modules currently reaching their end-of-life of 20-30 years, recycling should be the only consideration for disposal if the module cannot be repaired or reused. In fact, the International Renewable Energy Agency expects that by 2050 the huge number of solar modules needing disposal could be a platform of growth in the recycling industry. This fact is because at least 80% by weight of the solar module can be recycled (SEIA, 2016). Even more impressive recycling rates are seen in research conducted by PV Cycle, a European company, who has achieved 96-97% recycling rates for some solar modules.

SEIA is working to establish a national recycling network. ISTC is collaborating with several organizations to establish solar reuse and recycling in Illinois as part of their Solar Panel Recycling Initiative.

solar farm at the University of Illinois