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).
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).
Federal regulations consider solar panels to be hazardous waste when hazardous metals are present at high enough concentrations.
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.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that:
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).
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%.
States can choose to classify end-of-life solar panels as universal or hazardous waste (NCSL 2018).
There are no federal regulations on the collection and recycling of solar panels (Komoto 2018).
Hazardous waste classifications can create barriers for solar panel recycling programs .
Industry stakeholders have voluntarily provided solar panel collection and recycling modules.
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.
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).
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