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Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen

By James Gignac - Union of Concerned Scientists, October 30, 2020

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on wind turbines and energy storage batteries. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Growth of solar panels and their lifespans

Solar energy is converted into electricity primarily with photovoltaic (PV) panels (there is another technology, called concentrating solar power, or CSP, but it is less commonly used and not addressed here). PV panels are comprised of individuals cells linked together, forming various shapes and sizes based on the needs of the system. The panels themselves are made with semiconductor materials—generally silicon, but sometimes various rare metals—and generally covered in glass.

The cost of PV panels has declined dramatically in recent years while their efficiency has gone up. These trends are continuing, leading to rapid growth of the solar industry globally. Solar panels on average last 25-30 years (and maybe even longer); thus, solar installations occurring today can be expected to remain productive until the middle of this century.

The reliability and longevity of new panels means that the volume requiring recycling or disposal is currently low, except for very early generations of PV panels and small numbers that may get broken during the installation process or damaged in storms.

However, options for recycling and disposal need to be addressed as PV production continues to ramp up. And while the larger recycling need may not come for another decade, infrastructure and policy should be put in place now to accommodate future needs.

Recycling vs. disposal of PV panels

As current PV installations reach the final decommissioning stage, efficient recycling and material recovery are preferable to disposing of panels in landfills. Solar panels are mostly glass and metal, both of which are easily recyclable materials. For glass, however, the demand for recycled material has decreased significantly in the US in recent years. This low recycling rate is due to the single-stream recycling widely used in the US (for household items, for example), which leads to more contamination than the multi-stream approach used elsewhere. The result is a greater processing need that produces less usable “cullet” (recycled glass for glassmaking).

PV glass has additional challenges due to the presence of other materials embedded within the PV glass. On the other hand, assuming materials such as copper, silver, and silicon can be recovered efficiently, recycling these PV panel components could offer some cost savings in a PV circular economy model.

Acknowledging PV panels as a waste stream is a start, but as California has discovered, passing legislation around their disposal is not sufficient when the regulations facilities must follow are unclear. When PV panels are designated as hazardous materials, it makes their handling and recycling cumbersome or costly for manufacturers or consumers. On the other hand, the benefit is that there is designated responsibility for their disposal on the part of manufacturers.

One model for policy in addressing solar and other complex electronic waste is the European Union’s (EU’s) Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which came into effect in 2014 and puts in place extended producer responsibility. Each country in the EU is responsible for further regulation of PV panels, but universally all producers within the EU will bear the take-back and recycling burden rather than customers. Although this end-of-use responsibility is carried by producers, having this blanket policy across the EU allows producers to better account for and charge consumers upfront. Down the line, as solar panels need replacing, this approach creates a source of funding and a system in place for recycling.

In the US states could emulate this model by encouraging the development of solar panel recycling options and requiring manufacturers to offer takeback and recycling programs to customers. Leading the charge, Washington State enacted the Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program (SB5939) in 2017 that requires manufacturers selling solar products to have end-of-use recycling programs or they will not be permitted to sell solar modules in the state after January 1, 2021. Further, in April 2020, Washington House Bill 2645 was signed into law. It expands the solar stewardship policies in the state to include utility-scale solar panels, which were previously exempted.

Solar manufacturing in the U.S. has decreased largely due to competition from international markets that have driven down prices, but solar installations have continued to increase. As a result, there is potential for jobs and economic growth in the creation of solar recycling infrastructure in the US.

Solar power is continuing to grow and legitimate questions about materials needed to manufacture them and how to manage end-of-use should not slow us down. Growth in the sector is expected to continue and the makeup of panels are expected to evolve with time. This means that technology and policy around solar PV recycling will need to keep up. The solar industry, policymakers, and clean energy advocates should work together to plan for a future where clean energy is produced as responsibly as possible.

Please see the other blogs in this series for an introduction to recycling clean energy technologies, as well as additional information on recycling wind turbines and energy storage batteries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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