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Solar trash: Without intervention, a shocking (and costly) amount will be produced

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Janette Freeman's picture
Director Business Development FabTech Solar Solutions

Business Development professional working to promote solar panel recycling and refurbishing options with FabTech Solar Solutions.   We work with solar commercial and utility developers to assist...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Jul 2, 2021
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It is unlikely that state-by-state legislation will create a recycling infrastructure capable of handling the level of PV waste by 2030.  What is not entirely unlikely, though, is that there are enough responsible industry leaders that will create their own policies for responsible end-of-life management, and will spread awareness advocating for industry wide EOL planning. 

Do solar industry leaders committed to renewable energy, need to be legislated to make the choice away from landfilling their end-of-life solar panels to recycling or refurbishing them?  Do they need to have landfill bans in place to motivate them to make the clean energy choice for recycling?  I don't think the real leaders do.  What do you think?

PV Magazine Article:  Solar trash: Without intervention, a shocking (and costly) amount will be produced

Janette Freeman's picture
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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jul 2, 2021

Thanks for highlighting this important issue.  I wish these people would understand that they are sowing the seeds for the destruction of their industry if they don´t get this problem under control.

To answer your question:

"Do they need to have landfill bans in place to motivate them to make the clean energy choice for recycling?"

Absolutely!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 2, 2021

Solar will undoubtedly be a key tool the the clean energy future, but no companies are absent from the need from outside mechanisms to keep them honest when doing something wouldn't necessarily benefit their bottom line. Solar companies are doing good things, but they're still operating in the same capitalist system-- so I agree, Mark, having regulations like landfill bans in place can provide the necessary motivation for action at a quicker speed than we're seeing now. 

Janette Freeman's picture
Janette Freeman on Jul 2, 2021

Yes, so true Matt, your comment: "but no companies are absent from the need from outside mechanisms to keep them honest when doing something wouldn't necessarily benefit their bottom line."  Although, I have to wonder, if there were more public awareness, perhaps some companies would choose the internal policies to recycle out of the PR advantage, which indirectly affects their bottom line.  I know several of our customers do it because "its the right thing to do," and they would not want to be known as a solar company that landfills their damaged panels.

Janette Freeman's picture
Janette Freeman on Jul 2, 2021

Thanks, Mark!  Yes it benefits the whole industry to think long term!  Appreciate your remarks.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jul 12, 2021

Mark Silverstone is right.  There is no evidence that the solar suppliers, like Solar City, are even considering this issue.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jul 2, 2021

I have been advocating recycling of used solar panels and new lithium batteries for over 20 years. We got kyocera to recycle lots of panels in 2005 when they switched to no lead soldwr and had some production failures. Batteries are now being recycled by the former number 2 man, JB Strubel at Redwood industries.  It has become the thing to do and pays for itself unlike plastic recycling that is a failure. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 2, 2021

"there are enough responsible industry leaders that will create their own policies for responsible end-of-life management..."

Janette, what gives you confidence any industry leader would pay the prohibitive cost of recycling solar panels when it's so much easier and cheaper to toss them into a landfill?

"The main stumbling block to the majority of solar panels being recycled with such efficiency is the cost of doing so.

It currently costs $15-20 to recycle one standard 18 square foot solar power module. This makes it far more expensive than disposing of the panels via landfills. In the majority of states, this latter option is still legal.

The reason for the high price of recycling is because of the extensive thermal and chemical treatments needed to break the bonds between the glass, silicon, plastic and cadmium in the cells. The fact that the lead and cadmium needs to be disposed of separately adds to these costs."

I guess solar isn't as cheap and clean as they keep telling us it is.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jul 7, 2021

If it costs $15-20 to recycle one panel that has generated about 9,000 kWh over its life that adds 0.2 c/kWh to the cost, not exactly a game changer. If a homeowner is replacing an old 2.3 kW system with 190W panels with a new 7.2kW system at exhorbitant US prices is he really going to be put off by a $400 recycling bill

Janette Freeman's picture
Janette Freeman on Jul 7, 2021

Thanks Bob for your comments,. I appreciate the dialogue.  Regarding, "what gives you confidence any industry leader would pay the prohibitive cost of recycling solar panels when it's so much easier and cheaper to toss them into a landfill?"   

Actually, I work with many industry leaders that budget for recycling and are committed to it as a part of their internal policy and cost of doing business.  Even with the disposal costs, it is still clean and profitable.  Yes, you're right, recycling is still expensive, but we've also been able to cut those costs way down or zero them out to the customer if we can salvage for reuse enough panels from a decommission or repowering, sometimes providing them a profit.  

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jul 7, 2021

This is somewhat overstating the problem. If the US trashed 3% of its current solar panels per year that would be about 11m panels per year. 11m panels per year at an average weight of 17kg that is roughly 205,000 tons/y.

A single 2,000 MW coal plant generates 300-700,000 tonnes of solid waste per year, let alone the waste generated during mining and transport. That is not to say panels should not be recycled, but that compared to the 200 m tons the US sends to land fill each year it is not a significant issue.
However ther are now a number of plants being set up to recycle solar panels. They may not recycle 100% of the content but if it is as bad as 90% then we are looking at 2,000 tons per year in landfill or 0.2 ounces per person per year vs 1,100 pounds + from general solid waste to landfill

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