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Solar Panels: Decommissioning & Recycling

Written by Dr. Tomotaroh Granzier-Nakajima
Published on March 27, 2023
Research Highlights

There could be around 6.5 million metric tons of solar panel end-of-life material in 2050, if the electric grid is decarbonized.

Solar panels lose about 0.5% of their electricity generation performance per year.

Some states regulate solar panel disposal and recycling.

Solar panel waste will increase in the future.

If electricity production is carbon neutral by 2050, there could be up to 6.5 million metric tons of cumulative solar panel waste, mainly glass and silicon (Figure 1; Heath 2022).

  • Manufacturing scrap is expected to account for about 2.6-3.8 million metric tons of material in 2050.
  • Silicon waste comes from basic material production and manufacturing inefficiencies
Hazardous Materials

Solar panels contain different types of metals, some of which (e.g., lead, cadmium) can harm humans and the environment at high levels (EPA 1 2022).

  • Under normal operating conditions, solar panels are not found to significantly leach hazardous materials.

Federal regulations consider solar panels to be hazardous waste when hazardous metals are present at high enough concentrations.

  • Because of varying manufacturing and design processes, some solar panels may be classified as hazardous waste, even when the model and manufacturer are identical.
  • Federally, many types of solar panels are not considered to be hazardous waste (NCSL 2018).

To learn more about the environmental effects of large-scale solar plants, see our Science Note.

Figure 1. End of life solar panel glass waste by 2050.

Solar panels lose about 0.5% of their electricity generation performance per year.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that:

  • the solar panel failure rate is about 0.05%-0.1% per year (Jordan 2017).
  • after 20 years, solar panels produce approximately 90% as much electricity as they did in year one (Jordan 2016).

Some of the most common degradation causes for solar panel systems installed since 2007 include uneven heat distribution resulting in hotspots; internal circuitry discoloration leading to increased resistance; and glass breakage (Jordan 2017).

  • Older solar panel systems are more susceptible to discoloration or separation of the enclosing glass, which blocks light from the solar cell and reduces the amount of electricity generated (Jordan 2017).

While degradation reduces solar panel efficiency over time, it is not clear how to define a clear end to the lifetime of a solar panel. One user may consider a 90% efficient solar panel to be its end-of-life, while another may consider that number to be 70%.

  • Solar panel modules are typically warrantied for 20-25 years, after which they may still produce some energy but their output is no longer guaranteed (Mow 2018).

 

Some states regulate solar panel disposal and recycling.

Waste Classification

Federal regulations classify some solar panels as hazardous waste depending on the leachability of toxic chemicals as defined under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (EPA 2 2022).

States can choose to classify end-of-life solar panels as universal or hazardous waste (NCSL 2018).

Collection & Recycling

There are no federal regulations on the collection and recycling of solar panels (Komoto 2018).

  • WA requires manufacturers who sell solar units after July 1, 2017 to finance and provide recycling programs for their units (RCW 70A.510.010).

Hazardous waste classifications can create barriers for solar panel recycling programs .

  • It is easiest to develop solar panel recycling programs in states that classify solar panels as universal waste (e.g., CA) (NCSL 2018).

Industry stakeholders have voluntarily provided solar panel collection and recycling modules.

  • First Solar in OH operates its own recycling facilities for solar panel products that it produces (Komoto 2018).
  • The Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade association for solar energy, announced the launch of a national solar panel recycling program in 2016 (SEIA n.d.).

There is no comprehensive map of recycling services in the U.S. and it is not clear if existing programs can meet the increased disposal demands by 2050.

Decommissioning

Fifteen states, including IL (505 ILCS 147/15), OK (§60-820.1), and NE (66-911.01), have solar panel decommissioning regulations, usually for large-scale projects. Not all states include an explicit decommissioning timeline in statute.

Most policies require the removal of all solar energy equipment, and land restoration and reclamation back to its original condition after decommissioning (Curtis 2021).

 

References

Curtis, T. L., Smith, L. E. P., Buchanan, H., & Heath, G. (2021). (rep.). A Survey of Federal and State-Level Solar System Decommissioning Policies in the United States. USDOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Renewable Power Office. Solar Energy Technologies Office. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.2172/1836657 

Heath, G., Ravikumar, D., Ovaitt, S., Walston, L., Curtis, T., Millstein, D., Mirletz, H., Hartmann, H., & McCall, J. (2022). (rep.). Environmental and Circular Economy Implications of Solar Energy in a Decarbonized U.S. Grid . Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy22osti/80818.pdf 

Jordan, D. C., Kurtz, S. R., VanSant, K., & Newmiller, J. (2016). Compendium of photovoltaic degradation rates. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 24(7), 978–989. https://doi.org/10.1002/pip.2744  

Jordan, D. C., Silverman, T. J., Wohlgemuth, J. H., Kurtz, S. R., & VanSant, K. T. (2017). Photovoltaic failure and degradation modes. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, 25(4), 318–326. https://doi.org/10.1002/pip.2866  

Komoto, K., & Lee, J.-S. (2018). (rep.). End-of-Life management of Photovoltaic Panels: Trend in PV Module Recycling Technologies. International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Program. Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://iea-pvps.org/key-topics/end-of-life-management-of-photovoltaic-panels-trends-in-pv-module-recycling-technologies-by-task-12/ 

Mow, B. (2018, April 23). Stat Faqs Part 2: Lifetime of PV Panels. NREL.gov. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.nrel.gov/state-local-tribal/blog/posts/stat-faqs-part2-lifetime-of-pv-panels.html#_ftn1    

NCSL. (2018, September 30). Solar Panel Toolkit - Panel Recycling and Decommissioning. National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/solar-policy-toolbox.aspx  

SEIA National PV Recycling Program (SEIA). Solar Energy Industries Association. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://www.seia.org/initiatives/seia-national-pv-recycling-program  

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 1). (2022, August 5). End-of-Life Solar Panels: Regulations and Management. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/hw/end-life-solar-panels-regulations-and-management  

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 2). (2022, October 25). Solar Panel Frequent Questions. EPA. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/hw/solar-panel-frequent-questions  

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