Solar PV


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


There are several different types of solar panels. But all solar panels 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 panels to the landfill?

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

  • Education & Training
  • Repair & Reuse
  • Recycling

Education & Training

Transportation, installation, and decommissioning damage to solar panels can be reduced by having installation/decommissioning certification training programs or refresher courses that inform installers of the best practices established by the solar industry. Educating installers, investors, operators, and residential solar customers about other end-of-life options besides landfills such as reuse, repair, and recycling will also result in less landfilling.

Repair & Reuse

Commercial solar farms contracts usually have a set performance requirement for solar panels. If a panel falls below the requirement then the solar panel is replaced. But perhaps a small repair is all that is needed to bring the performance up to requirements. More solar farm operators could be trained in solar panel repair to reduce the number of panels being replaced. If a repair cannot be performed to bring up the performance then the panel could be removed and sent to be reused by those who are not concerned about decreases in performance metrics. The panels could be sold or donated. Some of these entities might be museums, low-income communities, or schools. But there is no state or nation-wide network set up to connect solar panel 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.


According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) less than 1% of decommissioned solar panels are currently being recycled. With the large number of solar panels reaching the end of their life in 20-30 years, recycling should be the only consideration for disposal if the panel cannot be repaired or reused. In fact, the International Renewable Energy Agency expects that by 2050 the huge number of solar panels needing disposal could be a platform of growth in the recycling industry. This fact is because at least 80% by weight of the solar panel 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 panels.

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