Solar Power Unearths Surprising E-waste Enigma

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According to a Greentech Media estimate from 2009, U.S. solar demand will increase by 50 percent annually through 2012. Photo: Lori Brown,

According to a Greentech Media estimate, U.S. solar demand will increase by 50 percent annually through 2012. Photo: Lori Brown,

What comes to mind when you think of electronic waste? Computers, televisions, cell phones…solar panels?

Commonly viewed as one of our most obvious links to clean, renewable power, solar power is becoming rapidly more popular in the U.S. and Europe. However, a question has popped up in the eco-sphere related to the proper disposal of PV systems.

Since solar technology is a recent development, and because the panels have a lifespan of 25-plus years, there’s no cause for panic, yet. But as Treehugger reports, “the potential for hazardous e-waste is huge.”

The great news? Solar panels can be recycled. The downside? It isn’t widely available yet. This creates a call to action for solar technology consumers to press for producer foresight and responsibility.

Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar, the world’s largest PV-cell manufacturer, is responding to this call. As it strives to create sustainable energy solutions, its recycling program helps to prevent a waste management challenge for future generations.

“First Solar embraces the concepts of extended producer responsibility and product life cycle management,” says company spokesperson Melanie Friedman. “End-of-life module collection and recycling is an integral part of First Solar’s commitment to both of these environmental principles.”

The company offers a comprehensive solar module collection and recycling program to any First Solar module-owner, who can request it anytime at no additional cost.

At the time of module sale, funds are set aside to cover the anticipated end-of-life processing, which are held and managed by a third-party trust that ensures they’ll be available when needed regardless of First Solar’s financial status.

However, the company doesn’t expect large volumes of modules to be returned for another 10 to 15 years. First Solar’s recycling facilities, located at each of its global manufacturing facilities, are “currently operating on manufacturing scrap, warranty returns, and any accidental breakages.”

Even so, there’s more that can be done to make the option available in coming years. A stitch in time saves nine, after all: if solar companies enact the necessary design changes to their modules now to make them easily recyclable, they will avoid high costs in the future, once the panels’ expiration dates loom closer.

If you need any more convincing, local recycling plants can also help create jobs and reduce solar module footprint, increasing their eco-sustainability cred.

But there may be one more problem. Solar panel manufacture involves the usage of potentially toxic materials including cadmium, selenium, silicon tetrachloride and powerful GHG sulfur hexafluoride.

This only highlights the necessity of recycling programs, as some believe solar panels might be hazardous waste when shredded or disposed of in a landfill. An operative recycling process would enable the recovery of these valuable materials.

In response, “First Solar’s modules have been tested in accordance with the U.S. EPA Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) protocols and are not federal hazardous waste at end-of-life in the U.S.,” states Friedman.

Let’s give them kudos: of the panels returned, First Solar recycles 90 percent of module glass and 95 percent of metal-rich semiconductor material.

While the cost of making a new panel from a recycled one is about the same as from new materials, it only uses about one-third of the energy. The price will likely shrink as the recycling volume increases down the (sunny) road.

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  1. Great article. Making solar cells recyclable is a giant leap towards truly sustainable energy. If solar cells can be made for easy recycling, they could be integrated into a wide variety of consumer goods. Check out to see some innovative uses of solar cells with consumer goods. Let’s hope that the whole industry moves towards recylables!

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