It’s estimated that the roof-top solar panels that many homeowners purchased or leased have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. They usually lose around 0.8% of their output every year.
Solar inverters may only last 10 to 15 years, so it’s not uncommon to have them fail long before the panels do. Plus, leasing programs may have only covered 15 years with the panels. Once the 15 years ends, the panels have to be removed from the roof if you don’t want to renew the lease. Any damage during the removal will require the solar panels to be recycled. Yet, the Solar Energy Industries Association only had partners in 11 states who were ready for solar panel recycling.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a climate and tax package in August that opens up almost $370 billion in funding for clean energy. Goals are to cut greenhouse emissions by more than 40% by 2030. It’s expected that this will greatly increase clean energy sources like wind and solar power. What about solar panel recycling? Are steps being taken to make it easier for people to recycle old solar panels?
Solar Energy Systems Must Be Properly Recycled
It’s estimated that by 2030, the materials in PV panels will hold around $2.7 billion in recyclable materials. These panels contain more than glass, they contain aluminum, cadmium, copper, polymer, polysilicon, and tellurium, all of which can be recycled. The problem is that there are not a lot of solar panel recycling companies out there. With the increasing number of solar panels nearing their 25 to 30-year lifespan, it’s time to address that.
The disassembly of a solar PV panel is not the easiest task. There’s an aluminum frame and that frame’s glue. There’s a tempered glass cover, the EVA polymer encapsulation film, the solar cells, copper electricals, more of the polymer film, and then a PET or PVF backing. The solar cells include silicon wafers, silicon nitride coating, and a silver grid.
That’s just a small part of solar panel recycling. You also have the junction box, the cables, bolts, roof mounts, and the solar inverter that’s typically found in the garage or basement. There’s often a second electricity meter on the outside of the house that connects to your initial electrical meter and the lines to the pole. If you’re leasing your panels and the lease ends, all of this equipment may need to be removed.
Many systems connect the inverter to the company’s monitoring platform or electricity company to monitor the solar panels’ production and ensure they’re working properly. If your modem isn’t near the inverter, you’ll often have a cellular plug-in that provides wireless communications between the inverter and the monitoring platform. All of these components must be recycled rather than thrown into the trash as they contain metals, glass, and plastic.
This is where a problem arises. The cost to recycle a panel can be substantial. It’s estimated that the recycled glass, copper, and aluminum may bring in a recycling facility around $3 per panel, but they may have spent upwards of $25 to $30 per panel in trucking and breaking the panel down. It’s not cost-effective. It becomes cheaper to put them in landfills, but that creates new problems. You have the metals slowly breaking down and increasing the risk of toxins in the groundwater and soil.
The International Renewable Energy Agency collects data from leaders in renewable energy, and they found that worldwide only 10% of solar panels are recycled. Many end up in the landfill. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that it costs about $2 to send a panel to the landfill while it costs an average of $25 to recycle one.
A startup found a better way to recycle solar panels using a mix of chemicals and is waiting for the patent to make it available. This blend of chemicals can be used over and over and also is effective at removing lead, which is much better for the environment. This is one of many ways grants and funding from the new clean energy bill will be helpful.
Funding and Research Measures in the U.S.
The green energy bill opens the door to finding efficient, effective ways for recycling discarded solar panels in the U.S. This is extremely important as it’s expected that by 2030 there will be upwards of 1 million tons of solar panel waste and by 2050 it’s estimated that there will be around 10 million tons.
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, $56 million was earmarked for innovation in both solar manufacturing and recycling. Of this, $29 million is going into Photovoltaics Research and Development to fund projects that focus on the reuse and recycling of solar panels.
One measure that gets a lot of discussion and passed in Washington State is to have solar panel manufacturers have to take the solar panels back at their end-of-life cycle. Washington is one of five states to enact laws or policies of this nature.
As of October 1, 2015, end-of-life PV modules are designated as universal waste and subjected to universal waste management rules. As of February 1, 2022, universal waste handlers accepting more than 200 pounds of PV modules from an off-site company have to submit an annual report to the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Any company handling PV modules, regardless of quantities, must file a Notice of Intent with the DTSC.
Effective on June 7, 2021, Hawaii requires any recycled solar panels to be recycled in a manner that’s compliant with hazardous waste rules. This includes solar panels that are manufactured but never used for whatever reason and must be disposed of.
- New Jersey:
New Jersey established the New Jersey Solar Panel Recycling Commission in 2019. They’re investigating recycling options for solar energy systems and panels and will be recommending legislative and other necessary actions.
- North Carolina:
North Carolina passed a bill that requires PV waste to be tested using a flow chart to see if it fits the definition of hazardous waste or if it should be disposed of as universal waste. If it is found to be hazardous waste, it must be processed as hazardous waste.
Any PV modules purchased after July 1, 2017, must be included in manufacturer take-back programs. The program is set to begin in 2025.
What Can Homeowners and Solar Energy Installers Do in the Meantime?
If you live in a state where there are no current laws regarding solar panel recycling, you still need to be responsible. Recycle your panels correctly and protect the environment. As a homeowner, talk to the company that installed your solar panels. They should have information to help you, or they may recycle them for you, depending on their policies.
Some solar panel manufacturers don’t have a plan in place yet. If you look for information and come up empty, let us know. ERI is a leader in solar module recycling. Contact us to discuss the panels you need to recycle and we’ll work with you and ensure they’re recycled responsibly.