As solar PV panels start to age, the industry looks at what to do with them at the end of their useful life. Although the majority of the PV waste will not roll in for at least another decade, solar manufacturers, consumers, and state and local agencies are making plans for the best way to dispose of solar panels.
Solar power has done a lot of good for the environment to date. As the solar industry grows, greenhouse gases will continue to decrease. Solar energy also conserves water, as very little is used in production, and new cleaning systems use little to no water. As the use of solar increases, fewer of the earth’s resources such as coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels will be mined and depleted. These are all great steps forward in protecting our environment.
So it comes as no surprise that as the industry grows, the collective conscience is looking toward reducing waste and harm at the end of a solar panel’s useful life. Creating new landfills is not on the solar agenda. (Repurposing old ones, of course, is there).
Solar panels have been around for decades, of course, but the majority have come on line in the last 10 years. These have a projected life span of 25 – 30 years. As we move closer to the midpoint, solar companies and alternative energy consortiums are working together to create a recycling model to keep these panels out of the landfill and find new life for their parts.
PV panels are among the easiest things to recycle. The resources already exist for reuse of glass. The aluminum frames can be melted down or fixed and used in new panels. The silicon and copper in the panels are also in demand. In fact, industry estimates show that over 90% of the panel can be easily recycled using existing resources.
The trouble is that the average solar panel owner does not have the ability to dismantle and recycle the panel. A system must be put in place to remove and disperse the components. Whether this will be through a third party, the solar provider, the manufacturer, a federal, state, or local agency, or some combination thereof is still to be determined.
Many companies offer recycling services to their clients already. First Solar currently collects its used panels. Currently 90% of the semiconductors and 95% of the glass collected are recovered, at a rate of 30 tons per day. This number is projected to increase more than tenfold in the next decade. Additionally, independent companies are emerging to recycle solar panel waste, such as PV Recycling.
The European Union requires all countries to have a recycling plan. Companies such as PV Cycle are working with many countries there to reclaim the waste. Here in the U.S., The Solar Energy Industries Association is working to create a comprhensive recycling plan, to address the waste concerns before this becomes a siginficant issue, as we have previously reported.
If all goes well, a good system with many of the kinks worked out will be in place before the first large wave of PV panel waste is ready to be repurposed. We will continue to follow the progress made toward this reclamation and recycling plan.