solar array with mountains in background

The U.S. has more than 2 million solar installations. This means there are tens of millions of solar panels on roofs and racking systems. Solar energy is fantastic for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy independence, but what happens at the end of the panel’s 30-year lifespan?

There is a looming waste management issue as solar systems age and will eventually be decommissioned. Is the U.S. prepared for large-scale solar panel recycling?

“Installations two decades ago are nearing their end of life, and that becomes a challenge for the waste industry,” says Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Because it takes a long time to develop technology and policy and solutions to dealing with end-of-life products, this is something we need to start to address today.”

According to Heath, solar panels could comprise more than 10 percent of global electronic waste by 2050.

Solar panel recycling presents an economic opportunity and can spawn new industries. A study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2050, $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar panels. There are also repair and reuse opportunities for solar panels that fail prematurely. These repaired solar panels are often sold at a discount, creating opportunities in new markets where affordability is an issue.

What Parts of the Solar Panel Can Be Recycled?

Glass, plastic, aluminum, and silicon comprise 99 percent of the silicon-based solar panels.

The assembly and variety of materials make solar panels relatively complex. Solar panels consist of 72 percent glass plus plastic, a variety of metals, including lead, copper, gallium, cadmium, and aluminum, along with silicon solar cells. It is a relatively tricky process to recycle solar panels, which involved dissembling, etching, and melting.

Lack of Solar Panel Recycling Policies in the U.S.

There are no national policies in the U.S., but some states are leading the way. Washington state has a solar stewardship program requiring manufacturers to collect panels at their end of life for recycling at no charge to the customer.

Europe, by contrast, has policies for solar panel recycling programs; the manufacturers are responsible for the takeback and recycling of their products. As a result, Europe is leading the way in solar panel recycling and has dedicated facilities that recycle panels for reuse.

How To Recycle Solar Panels

There exist a hodgepodge of options for recycling solar panels in the U.S.

Recycle PV offers nationwide solar panel recycling services. Recycle PV is collaborating with PV Cycle to help move U.S. panels to recycling facilities in Europe. SEIA has a PV recycling working group that has identified preferred recycling partners through an evaluation process. First Solar and SunPower are PV panel manufacturers that have recycling programs for scrap, warranty returns, and end of life.

With depots located across North America, Cascade Eco Minerals (CEM) is a sound end-of-life recycling option. This company has a zero-landfill policy and exclusively recycles solar panels in-house, adding greater accountability.

When Do Solar Panels Need To Be Recycled?

Solar panels have a design life of about 30 years. When a solar farm is decommissioned, it is especially important to recycle the panels because it can contain thousands.

On the residential side, it is up to the homeowner and solar contractors to determine when to decommission systems. Sometimes homeowners don’t know if their solar system is still working properly and producing sufficient power. Some solar system owners decommission a functional solar system prematurely. Unfortunately, older solar systems do not have monitoring capabilities like new ones. In this case, a good way to determine if the solar system is producing power is by looking at the display on the inverter.

Most solar panels have a window that will display the power consumption in watts or kilowatts. Some inverters also have lights to help you understand how the system is operating. Search Google for the inverter model you own to find an owner’s manual. Typically, a green light indicates the system is working and a red blinking light indicates an issue. Just because there is an issue doesn’t mean the solar system isn’t producing power.

The solar panels will only produce power during daylight hours, and midday is the best time to check your system’s performance. You can also look at your power bills to determine if you are getting credits for excess power, but this is a less reliable indicator of how the system is performing. Utility bills only show how much surplus power is fed to the grid, not the total energy production.

Recycling Options and Policies Needed

Although solar panel recycling is still in its infancy in the U.S., greater recycling options are coming. There is still a bit of time before the quantity of decommissioned solar panels reaches a really large volume, so now is the time to create an effective solar panel recycling infrastructure and policies.

Organizations like the SEIA and RecyclePV are helping to create develop solar panel recycling options throughout the country.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.