Clusters of solar panels glistening in the sun have become more common across the United States as the solar industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade. Solar panels can be found nearly everywhere: perched in roadside fields or mounted on the rooftops of businesses and homes.
Just like wind turbines, solar panels are a growing and evolving form of renewable energy. The way solar panel modules are manufactured, however, can present challenges when it comes to recycling or reusing their materials. This is especially true as the components in the first-generation of panels near their end-of-life expectancy.
Most solar panels have a life expectancy of 25-30 years. And as the solar market grows, so will the volume of photovoltaic (PV) panels in need of disposal. According to MIT Technology Review, it’s estimated about 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate globally by 2030. That number could reach 80 million by 2050.
What Is in a Solar Panel?
Solar technology works by converting sunlight into electrical energy that can be used to generate electricity or be stored in batteries or using thermal storage. When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by PV cells in the panel. This energy creates electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow.
A solar panel is pieced together in layers and made up of PV cells, inverters, racking equipment and other components. Most of this material can be recycled, such as the glass and aluminum frame, which make up 80% of a typical PV panel. The difficulty lies with dismantling it. That’s because adhesives and sealants used to protect the panels from external elements makes breaking them apart challenging.
Another challenge is the small amounts of hazardous materials and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and silver that are found in most panels. These materials are toxic and can leach into the soil or groundwater if tossed into a landfill. The U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sets rules on how to responsibly manage and dispose of the materials.
While there is a small amount of material in a solar panel that cannot be recycled, the recycling technology already exists to reduce or reuse about 80% of a PV solar module’s material.
Regulations: Refurbish, Reuse or Recycle
Just how cellphones and laptops can be refurbished, solar panels also can be restored and given second lives for use elsewhere. This involves a vendor having a program to accept the panels and then refurbish them in order to reuse them in other capacities; a panel no longer viable for use at a utility’s solar farm, for example, could be repurposed for reuse at a private residence.
Solar panel buyback and reuse programs are already in place overseas. In the European Union, a Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive requires any importer or manufacturer of PV panels to collect and treat the panels at their end of life. French environmental solutions provider Veolia has customers across Europe and already has a robust PV panel recycling program in place.
In the U.S., no federal regulations currently exist that would require PV module recycling, but the unlawful disposal of any hazardous waste within the panels can result in hefty fines. In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released an action plan that provides funding to the department’s Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO) to research and come up with a strategy to establish safe, responsible and economic end-of-life practices for PV products.
As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the DOE’s office for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy will receive $20 million to award to eligible entities such as institutions of higher education, nonprofits or other agencies for research, development, demonstration and commercialization projects. The goal is to come up with innovative and practical ways to increase the reuse and recycling of solar energy technologies.
Separately, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association for the U.S. solar industry, has been working with solar panel recycling partners since 2016. According to SEIA, its recycling partners have already processed millions of pounds of PV modules and related equipment.
State and Private Solar Recycling Programs
As the federal government works through its strategy, some states are taking early initiatives to keep renewable energy components out of landfills. For example, as of 2021, California specifies the material in PV panels as universal waste. The designation streamlines waste management options so that the material must be recycled and reused. North Carolina, New Jersey and Arizona are also moving legislation forward requiring end-of-life recycling of panels or the creation of buyback programs.
In the private sector, We Recycle Solar is one company that partners with manufacturers in need of PV material disposal services. Based out of Phoenix, We Recycle Solar has a footprint in several U.S. cities as well as others in Belgium, Japan and South Korea.
FabTech Solar Solutions is another Arizona-based solar recycling and refurbishing company that will credit customers for modules that are no longer of use to them, but still hold some monetary value. Manufacturers such as SunPower and First Solar also run global recycling programs for their customers.
As the number of solar projects continues to grow, it is just as important to expand the ways in which raw materials inside solar panels are reused or recycled.
As the demand for renewable energy sources grows, utilizing an experienced engineer-procure-construct (EPC) partner will keep your project moving forward on-time and on-budget.