Shining a light on solar panel recycling
Duke Energy has begun rolling out 500 megawatts (MW) of solar installations across the state of Florida.
Solar Energy Industries Association

Shining a light on solar panel recycling

Industry experts weigh in on developments of end-of-life solar panel management.

September 25, 2019

By 2050, the United States is expected to have the second largest amount of end-of-life solar panels after China.

Industry experts who have been following developments of end-of-life solar panel management recently provided an update on solar panel recycling in the U.S. during the Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) webinar, “Shining the Light on Solar Panel Recycling.”

California led the way in generating 19 percent of the nation's solar power in 2019. The U.S. produces 2.3 percent of its electricity using solar technologies, and solar energy production is expected to grow.

“Solar is really providing a lot of the power we’re using,” says Garvin Heath, senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Installations two decades ago are nearing their end of life and that becomes a challenge for the waste industry. Because it takes a long time to develop technology and policy and solutions to dealing with end-of-life products, this is something we need to start to address today.”

Heath adds that end-of-life photovoltaics (PV) modules intersect with the electronics recycling industry and fall under the category of electronic scrap. PV modules could exceed 10 percent of global electronic waste by 2050, he says.

Crystalline solar panels make up 90 percent of the solar panels on the market today. The modules are made up of bulk materials, including glass (75 percent), an aluminum frame, copper wire and a plastic junction box and also include smaller components of silver and silicon and hazardous materials, including lead. Most recyclers focus on recovering the bulk materials, including glass, plastics and aluminum from the panels.

Successful solar panel recycling models have been established across Europe, including manufacturers operating “dedicated facilities” to recycle panels for reuse. By 2050, the industry could recovery enough material to produce 2 billion new panels, Heath says. He adds more infrastructure and a focus on “high-value recycling” is needed to recycle solar panels more widely in the U.S.

Evelyn Butler, senior director of codes and standards at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Washington, says the association’s member-based PV recycling initiative connects manufacturers and installers with established solar panel and electronics recyclers to “build the footprint of reuse and recycling” across the U.S.

Butler says most solar panel scrap is generated during the manufacturing and distribution process, from waste management companies where modules are brought in for disposal from residential or corporate customers or when solar panels are being replaced with newer modules.

SEIA’s network includes 16 partners across the U.S. The association is adding two new members in 2019. Butler says the association is interested in developing recyclers in states where legislation to recycle solar panels is moving forward.

In 2019, North Carolina passed a bill that requires the Environmental Management Commission to develop regulations and oversee the end-of-life management of solar panels. A proposed bill would also ban solar panels from being disposed of in landfills and require manufacturers to provide a take-back program.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is also in the process of classifying PV modules as “universal waste,” which would make it easier to collect, transport and recycle. New York has also proposed a bill that would implement a landfill ban and require solar panel manufacturers to provide a collection and take-back program.

Casey Hines, a sales executive at Dynamic Lifecycle Innovations, an Onalaska, Wisconsin-based electronics recycler, says “there’s a lot of similarities between solar modules and electronics.”

Dynamic, which accepts crystalline modules, processes solar panels through a shredder and recovers nonferrous fines and steel. He says recyclers can also process panels through an eddy current or optical sorter.

“Not everyone is doing it the exact same way,” Hines says.

He adds, “There’s a limited number of recyclers in the states taking modules. I think there’s a need for these organizations to be able to accept these modules in areas where people are struggling to find a proper outlet.”

In 2016, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, which requires the state to generate 25 percent of its energy from renewable energy by 2025. The proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act would get Illinois to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

As a result of the legislation, 360,000 modules have been installed in Illinois with an additional 6 million modules to be installed by 2020.

“One million modules will reach end of life by 2030,” says Jennifer Martin of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center of University of Illinois. “This is something we want to get ahead of and be prepared for.”

She says the center is trying to figure out who is responsible for managing end-of-life modules. Another concern of the state is keeping broken or damaged panels from entering landfills, she says.

“Right now, many states see a concern for preparing this plan to manage the waste,” Martin says. “Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina are working to figure out a plan and engage national and local stakeholders, installers and recyclers.”