California has been a leader in promoting rooftop solar energy and has created the largest solar market in the United States. After more than two decades and 1.3 million roofs, the cost must be accounted for.
Beginning in 2006, the state, which was interested in finding ways to encourage individuals to utilize solar energy, lavished subsidies on houses that installed photovoltaic panels but lacked a detailed plan for getting rid of them. The normal 25- to 30-year life cycle of the panels purchased through those initiatives is currently coming to an end.
Up until 2006, when the California Public Utilities Commission established the California Solar Initiative, small government rebates accomplished little to reduce the cost of solar panels or promote their adoption. To mount solar panels on rooftops, provided $3.3 billion in subsidies.
The law went above and above what was intended, lowering the cost of solar panels and increasing the percentage of solar-generated electricity in the state. Manufacturers of panels and regulators alike are now recognizing they are unprepared for what lies ahead. According to a data sheet released by the Solar Energy Industries Assn., a new solar project was erected every 60 seconds in 2021, and the solar business is predicted to double in size between 2020 and 2030.
Even though recyclable elements make up around 80% of a typical photovoltaic panel, it is quite challenging to disassemble the panels and recover the silicon, glass, and silver.
According to AJ Orben, vice president of We Recycle Solar, a Phoenix-based business that disassembles solar panels, extracts valuable metals, and disposes of toxic materials, “there's no doubt that there will be an increase in the number of solar panels entering the waste stream in the next decade or so.” The panels are instead trucked to a location near Yuma, Arizona.
Solar panel recycling is a difficult procedure. To extract the aluminum frame and junction box from the panel without breaking it into glass shards, highly skilled tools and personnel are required. Panels are heated in specialized furnaces to extract silicon. The majority of jurisdictions classify panels as hazardous products, which necessitates pricey limitations on the packaging, transit, and storage. (Crystalline silicon panels, which make up the vast majority of household solar arrays in the U.S., can contain lead, though newer panels are less likely to do so. Utility-grade applications are the main use for cadmium- and selenium-containing thin-film solar panels.)
According to Orben, there isn't a strong economic argument in favor of recycling. The majority of processing expenses are labor-related, and even large-scale panel recycling would not be more cost-effective, according to Orben.
To make recycling economically viable, the majority of research on photovoltaic panels is concentrated on recovering silicon with solar grade. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recycling a panel is around $20 to $30 cheaper than disposing of it in a landfill, which would cost $1 to $2. No standardized method exists, according to Natalie Click, a doctorate candidate in materials science at the University of Arizona, “for monitoring where all of these retired panels are going.”
The first information on panels recycled by universal waste handlers was gathered by the California Department of Toxic Substances in 2021. The DTSC counted 335 panels accepted for recycling from handlers that absorbed more than 200 pounds or produced more than 10,000 pounds of panels, according to Sanford Nax, an agency spokesperson.
The government predicts that the number of solar panels installed will approach hundreds of millions in California alone over the next ten years, and that recycling will become even more important as cheaper, shorter-lasting panels gain popularity.
One of the issues, according to experts, is that consumers are not aware of the toxicity of some of the elements used in some panels and how to dispose of them.
We're attempting to close the informational, technological, and financial gaps, according to Amanda Bybee, co-founder of SolarRecycle.org, a website dedicated to educating visitors on the benefits of recycling solar panels. Previously, all panels had to be handled as hazardous trash when they were removed, which limited their ability to be transported and stored.
The panels were expected to be transported by both commercial and residential consumers, or generators as they are known in the recycling sector, to authorized recycling or hazardous waste disposal sites.
Panels can now be collected at more than 400 universal waste handlers in California. After being evaluated, they are then transported to facilities for disposal, reuse, or recycling. (When panels with harmful compounds are shipped to landfills, they are delivered to locations with additional measures against leaking.) The goal of the new rules was to make it simpler for individuals to recycle their panels, however, recycling is not specifically addressed.
According to Orben of We Recycle Solar, “What that [regulation] does is change how that stuff is handled, maintained, stored, and delivered.” “It doesn't alter the actual processing of that content.”
A panel recycling program was launched by the Solar Energy Industries Assn. in 2016, a nonprofit trade association for the US solar sector. The industry group's five recycling partners, according to Robert Nicholson, manager of PV Recycling at the association, are working to “create compliant, cost-effective recycling services for end-of-life modules.”
Since the bulk of recyclers already exists, we have to collaborate with them to sort of make that leap and say: “We feel that the procedures you're employing can handle the technology.” Additionally, the group collaborates with policymakers to create legislation that lessens the number of panels that end up in landfills.
One option to make solar panel recycling economically viable for waste providers, who now carry the majority of the expense of recycling, is through government subsidies. It mandates that all manufacturers of panels for the EU must pay for end-of-life collection and recycling.
Many U.S. states have attempted to pass legislation along these lines, notably Washington, where the Photovoltaic Module Stewardship and Takeback Program will compel solar panel producers to pay for end-of-life recycling.
It is a component of a larger recycling industry concept known as extended producer responsibility, in which the price of a product is adjusted to include the cost of recycling at the time of purchase. Instead of the general public, business organizations in the supply chain are now in charge of end-of-life costs, such as recycling fees. Shah, who is currently in charge of the Loan Programs Office for the Department of Energy, asserted that lawmakers must compel manufacturers to develop a common design that makes panels easier and less expensive to recycle. People do not choose to participate in it.
In collaboration with the California Product Stewardship Council, a public-private partnership, Santa Monica completed a pilot program for the recycling of solar panels in April 2022. The stewardship council conducted a poll of nearby home solar owners and discovered that many of them contacted installers for assistance when unsure of what to do with end-of-life panels.
According to Drew Johnstone, a sustainability analyst for Santa Monica, “we did discover that the solar installers were the best contact for us to learn about how many retired panels were in our region.” There was no acceptable option for where to bring them, so some contractors were forced to simply dump them in their warehouses.
According to Johnstone, the universal waste reclassification has significantly reduced the amount of money and paperwork required to manage modules, and more handlers are now able to take the generators' panels. Therefore, it would be wise for local, county, state, and even federal governments to have a strategy in place for all of these panels that will expire in 10 to 15 years.
John Carter has been a content and ‘ghostwriter' for many popular online publications over the years. John is now our chief editor at NewsGrab.