As Solar Power Advances, Disposal Will Become an Issue

Photo: First Solar

First Solar has implemented the industry’s first comprehensive, prefunded module collection and recycling program. Photo: First Solar

The Utility Solar Assessment Study estimates that solar energy will account for 10 percent of electricity use in the U.S. by 2025.

But like any other consumer product, solar panels have a limited shelf life and disposing of old panels will eventually come into play.

So what do you do when you need to get rid of an obsolete panel? With a life expectancy of more than 25 years, even the trailblazers of solar power panels should have several years before they really need to worry, in theory. But some companies are wisely anticipating the demand ahead of time.

First Solar operates solar module recycling plants in the U.S. and Europe. According to spokesperson Melanie Friedman, the company estimates that 90 percent of the material recovered from solar panels can be recycled into useful products.

“Our Extended Producer Responsibility program allows anyone in possession of First Solar modules to request collection and recycling at anytime, free of charge,” says Friedman. “This includes packing materials, transportation and recycling services.”

In the U.S., the modules are shipped to its Perrysburg, Ohio facility, where they undergo several stages in order to break down material. Much of this involves the glass components, which are crushed small enough to remove lamination and then rinsed for use in new products.

For First Solar, this glass has value, as its modules are generated using sheets of glass instead of individual solar cells. Friedman adds that approximately 95 percent of its semiconductor films are recovered and reused in new modules.

But what about other consumer solar panel models? European organization PV CYCLE was founded in 2007 to develop a manufacturer-funded take-back program for panels and modules. PV CYCLE has recruited more than 70 percent of Europe’s solar manufacturers and is looking to have a collection and recycling program established by 2015.

No such organization currently exists in the United States. But that may be partly because of a lack of demand. Waste Management, which operates more than 270 landfills and 130 recycling plants in North America, has yet to see a disposal need for solar panels.

“These materials have yet to enter the waste stream,” says Waste Management Director of Communications Wes Muir. “This is possibly because [solar technology] is a relatively new development.”

Friedman says First Solar has found a similar level of participation in its recycling program. “We do not expect large volume of modules to be returned for another 10 to 15 years,” she adds. “Our recycling facilities are currently operating on manufacturing scrap, warranty returns and any accidental breakages.”

If you find yourself in need of solar panel disposal in the meantime, it might be worth it to contact your nearest construction and demolition recycling facility. You’ll probably need to pay a disposal fee, but it’s small in comparison to the money you’ll have saved on energy use during the life of the panels.

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  3. Nice shallow article, solar panels are very much e-waste with the same problems as your TV or cell phone when it comes to disposal. Within the sandwich of glass and plastic are circuits of lead, cadmium, chrome, and flame retardents. Exposed to the juices within a landfill these devices with create a toxic soup of heavy metals and brominated biphenyls. Suggesting the readers to call a local C&D facility is bad information, although these folks are in the waste business, they are typically handling concrete and wood. Calling your town or county solid waste departments may is a better choice. Hopefully solar panels will be characterized by EPA like electronic devices and handled as Universal waste, or require the manufacturers or licensed recycling facilities to accept them. Currently, EPA would require these units to be handled as hazardous waste because they fail the hazardous waste characterization tests. We just sampled several units damaged in a fire for waste profiling purposes and they all failed the TCLP test for lead. And by the way, unless grounded, up even damaged solar panels are still capable of generating electricity so watch the glass and loose wire when handling a broke solar panel.

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