Here’s the thing about solar panel waste: We’re about to have a whole heap of it on planet Earth.
That’s because solar technology effectively went mainstream around the turn of the millennia, with units that have an estimated lifespan of 25 to 30 years. Now that we’re well into the 2020s, millions of modules that were commissioned in those early days are entering retirement. But where will they go?
The simplest answer: lots of different places, including many landfills, based on the immediate infrastructure and policies in place. But there are other options as this new problem unfolds.
Solar panels contain numerous valuable materials and elements that could be reclaimed and repurposed as a unit approaches the end of its life.
A primary limitation to recycling is the dismantling process and parsing apart of these components, which is not something that occurs at a standard recycling facility. It requires specialized facilities and only a handful currently operate around the U.S.
However, recycling strategies, private businesses and public regulations are now evolving daily to address the emerging environmental challenge of solar panel waste.
Plenty of experts — and even more cynics — agree that during the infancy of solar innovation, the question about long-term waste was somewhat eclipsed by the promise of a green alternative to fossil fuels. And for good reason, given the mounting threat of human-induced climate change rooted in harmful greenhouse emissions.
Engineers and innovation in recent decades have proven that channeling the sun’s energy for electricity can be a sustainable, effective energy source. Just last year, the International Energy Agency reported that solar energy accounted for “the largest absolute generation growth of all renewable technologies in 2022, surpassing wind for the first time in history.”
But it does come with limitations and new challenges, including how and where to dispose of its manufactured parts.
Rather than suddenly stop working, solar panels tend to gradually degrade and decrease their productivity over their course of life.
Some estimates suggest you can expect a panel to decline at a rate of less than 1 percent per year once it is commissioned. Factors such as cold climate or harsh weather, of course, can influence the rate of deterioration.
But, generally speaking, that rate of decline in energy production will speed up after the panel hits 25 or 30 years of operation. Newer panels, however, are extending the life expectancy of the components as technology advances.
It’s also worth noting that the U.S. Department of Energy estimates 70 percent of solar systems currently operating were installed after 2016. This means they shouldn’t be reaching end of life until well into the 2040s.
By 2030, the U.S. alone could log 1 million tons of waste from decommissioned solar modules, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). (Globally, the number is approximately eight times greater.) The waste will grow exceedingly by 2050.
This is especially troubling when you consider that less than 10 percent of retired solar modules in the U.S. are currently being recycled, based on NREL estimates.
One key reason behind this is the fact that currently no federal regulations restrict tossing solar modules into landfills — despite some risk of hazardous leaching.
As such, for consumers the cost of the landfill option, typically $1 or $2 per panel, is much cheaper than recycling responsibly, often around $20.
Some of the costs and limited options for recycling today stem from the challenges of dismantling and separating the many elements in a solar panel, plus securing a market for the reclaimed components.
But research shows more opportunities and promising value emerging in the U.S. and beyond.
NREL projections for 2030 estimate the materials alone in spent U.S. solar panels will reach $60 million. By 2050, the value is set to hit $2 billion. But the market hasn’t yet tapped into this resource.
Once more labor and operations are dedicated to this work, the benefits are multi-tiered. They include boosting the domestic supply chain of rare minerals for solar technology, reducing negative environmental impacts and expanding U.S. market opportunities, according to a 2021 NREL report.
Just last year, the U.S. startup SolarCycle launched with the specific mission to refurbish modules and recycle solar panel waste — promising to extract 95 percent of the high-value metals in solar photovoltaic panels.
This includes silver, silicon, copper and aluminum, which could be repurposed for other uses or infused back into future panels.
As of February, SolarCycle appeared to be one of only a handful of U.S. companies currently dedicated to solar panel recycling. So time will tell how profitable the effort is and what other companies step up to take on the challenge.
Government subsidies and regulations are also likely to influence the field. And when these changes happen, it’s expected to inform design approaches and engineering to make solar panels more sustainable.
The U.S. Department of Energy last year announced a five-year strategy and action plan to tackle the end-of-life challenge with photovoltaic panels. The aim is to halve the cost of recycling and significantly cut the environmental impact.
At least $20 million in federal grants were also announced within the past year, designated for groups and individuals researching practical innovation to reuse and recycle solar technology.
Meanwhile, other research breakthroughs have been announced this summer, such as using microwave technology to dismantle modules more quickly and efficiently.
One long-term byproduct of reclaiming materials in retired solar technology is the creation of an alternative to foreign trade and invasive mining for rare materials.
Compounds such as silicon, which is abundant in many panels, is conveniently the most common conductor used in computer chips, so there’s no lack of demand in the marketplace.
Ultimately, the private market for solar recycling is still in its infancy since relatively few panels were being disposed of prior to 2020. But the problem is already becoming real in places like California, where more solar panels are installed (and now reaching end of life) than any other state — yet no California company currently handles solar recycling.
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