Why you should care
Because avoiding a giant pile of solar panel waste 30 years from now depends on actions taken today.
Sam Vanderhoof is still thinking about the 12,000 solar panels in Puerto Rico he can’t recycle. Vanderhoof’s recycling site is in Arizona, and the panels, destroyed by Hurricane Maria, are far enough to make the shipping costs unmanageable.
After first getting a call about them in September, Vanderhoof, founder and owner of Solar CowboyZ, a consulting firm in California, hasn’t heard anything. As far as he knows, the panels are still there.
While weather damage is the primary reason why solar photovoltaic (PV) panels need to be recycled, that’s going to change in the next 20 years — and it’s unclear if we’ll be ready for it. According to a report by the United Nations International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA):
There will be 60 million tons of cumulative solar photovoltaic waste by 2050.
That’s about 150 Empire State Buildings worth of PV panels. Given that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste every day, it would take more than 37,000 years for one person to produce that amount. And solar is by far the fastest-growing renewable energy: In 2017, its growth outstripped that of all other renewable energies combined. PV panels, the kind that line rooftops and farm-size utility installations, have a useful life of about 30 years. So a panel installed today would need to be replaced around 2048, or earlier if damaged.
It’s not that solar panels can’t be recycled now — after all, they’re mostly glass and aluminum. They can’t be placed in a recycling bin, though, owing to elements like silicon, silver and copper that require specialty recyclers who know how to extract those elements. But in the countries where most of that 60 million tons will end up — the U.S., India and China — there are no widespread recycling programs.
Evelyn Butler, senior director of codes and standards at the U.S. industry group Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), says she knows of about a dozen organizations across the country accepting panel waste. SEIA is trying to encourage more such recycling outfits by connecting solar firms with recyclers. States are still writing their own solar waste policies, Butler says, and until those are done, firms are less likely to enter into the recycling business.
Vanderhoof became a recycler in July, working with an existing electronics recycler in Arizona to accept the panels. He got into recycling because of a “sense of personal responsibility,” he says, and has since gotten calls from “companies who want to do the right thing, or homeowners who pulled [solar panels] off their roof and don’t want them to go into a landfill.”
But the economics are challenging. Vanderhoof charges $18 per panel to recycle and another $7 or $8 in transportation costs.
This year, France opened what’s believed to be the first plant dedicated solely to recycling solar panels.
“The biggest issue is the misconception the recoverable materials are worth a lot,” Vanderhoof says. “We can pull out about 94 percent of the materials — but the market rate is $3.50 [per panel].” Most of that value is in silver. Vanderhoof thinks recycling costs could come down with scale, but the difficulty, he says, is “jump-starting the process.” Europe’s experience with mandating recycling with dedicated funding could be a guide.
A 2012 update to European Union electronics rules included specific regulations for solar panel recycling. As a result, EU countries have a more robust recycling program. This year, France opened what’s believed to be the first plant dedicated solely to recycling solar panels.
Vanderhoof would like to see a similar system set up in the U.S. “Like recycling here for cans and bottles,” he says. “Or if you go buy a new TV [in California], you pay upfront for the recycling.”
Beyond making renewable energy more sustainable, there’s huge potential in recycling. IRENA estimates those 60 million tons of waste could be recycled into 2 billion new panels and represent $15 billion of total value in raw materials, not counting the development of new industries.
The best time to be a solar panel recycler could be much earlier than 2050. Butler says that manufacturers are using less silver than they did even a few years ago. As panels become cheaper and more effective in converting sunlight into electricity, large installers may want to swap out panels early. Recyclers could set up a PV program now to take advantage of that.
“If they’re a known resource for recycling in five to 10 years when some of those panels with more silver [come offline], it would be good for them,” Butler says.
The reuse-and-repurpose ethos that other recycling programs espouse makes sense for solar panels. Even at the end of 30 years, Butler says, most panels will still have some effectiveness — as much as 50 percent — and can be used for off-the-grid applications.
“There’s another purpose they can serve [before recycling],” she says.