A solar panel converts the sun’s radiant energy into electricity using cells, called photovoltaic (PV) modules, and semiconductors. Each Photo voltaic panel has a life expectancy of 20-30 years, as stated by the leading Industry Association, and most solar products have not reached the end of their first life cycle. The International Renewable Energy Agency published information on end-of-life management for PV Panels (2016) and provided empirical data on frequent causes of PV panel failures, including degradation of the anti-reflective coating of the glass, discoloration of the ethylene vinyl acetate, delamination, contact failures in the junction box, glass breakage, loose frames, etc.
“The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to de-manufacture,” says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S.
Figure. Estimated Global PV Waste Volumes Projected by the International Renewable Energy Agency (2016).
During their entire life cycle, from the production to their final disposal, considerable quantities of non-renewable resources generate pollution and waste with a high environmental impact. As PV panels are being removed from residential and commercial installations, recycling and proper end-of-life management becomes an increasingly imminent problem. The large amounts of mostly-recyclable waste imposes the need to plan effective processes for removal, dismantling, disposal and/or reuse. International Renewable Energy Agency suggests end-of-life management is based on the extended-producer-responsibility (EPR) principle, holding producers responsible for the environmental impact of their products through to end-of-life and provides incentives for the development of greener products with lower environmental impacts and contributes funds to finance proper collection, treatment, recycling and disposal systems.
In 2015, Senate Bill 489 CPSC Supported passage of this bill by Monning which authorizes DTSC to adopt regulations to designate used/spent solar panels that are currently hazardous wastes as universal waste. On May 9, 2018, the California Energy Commission voted unanimously to adopt new building standards that require solar photovoltaic systems starting in 2020.
In July 2017, Washington became the first state to pass a solar stewardship bill (ESSB 5939), requiring manufacturers selling solar products into the state to have end-of-life recycling programs for their own products. ESSB 5939 finds that a convenient, safe, and environmentally sound system for the recycling of PV modules, minimization of hazardous waste, and recovery of commercially valuable materials must be established. The responsibility for this system must be shared among all stakeholders, with manufacturers financing the take-back and recycling system.
Countries in the EU being early adopters of this technology have already seen panels coming in for recycling and have taken steps to adapt their rules and regulations to include Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) principles (Mehta, 2017). The EU introduced its very first EPR legislation for waste electrical and electronic (WEEE) management in 2002 and was revised in 2012 to include PV as a separate category, in anticipation of this looming issue of end-of-life management.
We have been frustrated that DTSC has yet to complete the regulations process which has left local governments, utilities and installers with no affordable way to manage the solar panels in California and led CPSC to lead a coalition that wrote a letter asking DTSC to quickly finish the regulations
- CPSC Group Sign On Letter to DTSC about Solar Panels 3-9-17
- SEIA-CALSSA letter to DTSC 4-26-18
- SMUD DTSC Letter 3-9-18
- CPSC Public Information Request for DTSC Regarding PV Classification as Universal Waste 9-26-18
Until the new regulations are adopted, solar panels are hazardous waste must be managed as such which is extremely expensive. This situation limits who can collect PV panels and process panels as well as ensures they are very expensive to manage. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is currently engaged with CPSC and the City of Santa Monica and County of Butte to work on two pilot collection HHW grants but until the DTSC regulations are done, we are not sure we can even implement the pilots as the cost to mange panels is too high. Contact CPSC if you are interested in learning more or getting involved with solar panel recycling in California.
Articles & Press
- More Solar Panels Mean More Waste– Waste Advantage, 10/29/18
- What will we do with all those solar panels when their useful life is over- Ensia, 4/11/18
- Its time to plan for solar panel recycling in the United States– Solar Panel World, 4/2/18
- Life_Cycle_Assessment_of_Current_Photovoltaic_Module_Recycling– International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power System Programme, 12/17
- Policies and Measures for Sustainable Management of Solar Panel End-of-Life in Italy – Melandrino et al, Sustainability, 3/23/17
- Extended Producer Responsibility for Solar Photovoltaic Panels: Practices and Challenges in End-of-Life management in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland – International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, 6/17