Solar Waste Recycling Economics Must Catch Up With PV Progress

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Solar waste recycling is a relatively new industry. As more and more solar panels reach the end of their projected lifespans, it is a business that will be much sought after. Even now, as the solar industry is just becoming established and mainstream, recycling companies and environmental agencies are looking for ways to recycle discarded panels. The dilemma is that it’s hard to turn a profit right now by recycling solar waste.

And that presents a problem for the nascent solar industry.

“The industry’s current circular capacity is woefully unprepared for the deluge of waste that is likely to come,” concludes a trio of professors writing for the Harvard Business Review. “Of all sectors, sustainable technology can least afford to be shortsighted about the waste it creates. A strategy for entering the circular economy is absolutely essential — and the sooner, the better.”

How much energy is created from solar panels these days? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, solar panels provided about 40% of new US electric generation capacity in 2020.

What materials are used to make solar panels? Solar panels are about 75% glass and also have valuable materials like aluminum frames, copper, silicon, and silver.

What are the components of a solar system?

  • PV Module — Glass, aluminum, copper, silver, and semiconductor materials can be recovered and reused.
  • Inverter — Can be recycled as e-waste.
  • Racking System — Can be reused with newer technology or recycled like other metals.

How much do solar panels lose efficiency annually? Solar panels decrease in efficiency by .5% each year, so a 20-year-old panel produces 90% of what it did in the first year. Solar panels primarily degrade because of normal use and exposure to UV rays and adverse weather conditions. Buyers know their product’s rate of degradation, as it is included in a panel’s performance warranty.

How long do solar panels last? Industry experts say solar panels can last from 25 to 35 years.

What happens when solar panels reach the end of their projected lifespans? They are replaced by more efficient solar panels. Some others get damaged during installation or extreme weather.

Where do the majority of solar panels go when they’ve reached their useful life? Solar waste can pile up in landfills and pollute the environment, just like everything else we throw away.

What are some of the specific solar waste disposal and recycling practices that exist?

  • Disposal of panels in the trash
  • Using the manufacturer’s take back program
  • Hiring a local electronics recycler to collect the panels
  • Reselling or giving away panels for reuse.
  • Sending panels to a local scrapyard.
  • Sending panels to C&D processing sites with roofing materials when a homeowner replaces their roof.

Why is recycling solar waste so important? Recycling solar panels is essential for environmental sustainability, as it helps reduce waste and the demand for new raw materials, conserving resources, and reducing energy consumption.

Why aren’t there more solar waste recycling centers? Right now it costs more to process those materials than to sell them.

What is the anticipated growth of the solar waste recycling industry? BCC Research expects the solar panel recycling market size to expand at a CAGR of 36.8% to reach $1.7 billion by 2028.

What does it take to recycle solar waste? Specialized labor is required to detach and remove solar installations, or else they may splinter and fracture prior to transport. Some laws and regulations classify solar panels as hazardous waste because they contain small amounts of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and hazardous waste has specific limitations on when it can be transported and on what routes.

What makes solar panels eligible to be recycled? Many solar panels that are recycled or discarded have been damaged in transit, construction, storm, or other accident, or they no longer hold the necessary energy efficiency quotient.

Are any US states trying to help to develop a solar waste recycling industry?

  • In July 2017, Washington became the first state to pass a solar stewardship bill (ESSB 5939), requiring manufacturers selling solar products in the state to have end-of-life recycling programs for their own products.
  • California’s SB 489 Hazardous Waste: Photovoltaic Modules, passed in 2015 and updated in 2021, encourages safe disposal of old panels and designates end-of-life solar panels as universal waste.
  • North Carolina convened a stakeholder group selected by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to develop decommissioning rules by the end of 2022.
  • The New Jersey legislature also authorized a Commission to investigate end-of-life management options and develop similar recommendations.
  • In August, 2023, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection released a report titled, “Solar Panel Recycling: A Review of Existing Markets and Practices.”

How much solar waste should we expect in the future? As reported by the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts DEP says the state is expected to have 6,500 tons of retired solar panels annually by 2030, and 40,000 tons by 2050, assuming an average lifespan of 25 years. By 2050 , the world will accumulate 78 million tons, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

What parts of a solar installation can be repurposed?

  • Around 95% of the glass from a panel can be recycled for coatings or packaging
  • All of the metal frame, which contains aluminum, can be reused for new panels
  • Around 85% of the silicon content can be extracted for use in solar panels, electronics, or batteries
  • Polyethylene glycol terephthalate (PET) and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), plastics that account for 5% and 10% of the waste from a solar cell, respectively, can be recovered.

What does the solar waste recycling support system look like? A solar panel recycling capacity must be constructed that includes uninstallation, transportation, and adequate storage facilities for solar waste.

Have online marketplaces developed for used solar equipment? According to MA DEP, a Minnesota-based exchange estimates its has as many as 5 million solar parts available on the site at a time. A Hong Kong tech broker estimated 10 million used panels are available on the global market. A Japanese trading house announced it is establishing a blockchain-based market for solar panels.

What can be done to stabilize the solar waste recycling industry? Solar panel producers can step up lobbying for legislation in the US immediately and seek a legal framework for the recycling and disposal of solar waste throughout the US states.


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