Disposal of used solar panels could pose great challenges

Solar power sounds like an energy utopia because it produces no emissions when used. But what happens when they reach the end of their life?


What do you want to know

  • Solar panels depend on the sun to generate energy
  • Solar power for 1,000 homes per year occupies 32 acres of land
  • The glass and metal frames of the solar panels can be recycled, but the rest is thrown away or burned
  • It takes a considerable amount of energy and money to extract toxic materials from solar panels to be recycled

Solar panels are made of various materials such as glass, aluminum, silica, cadmium and metals.

While glass and metal can usually be easily recycled, it takes money and a considerable amount of energy to separate the good from the bad.

Often end-of-life panels are sent to landfill because it is not cost effective to recycle them since different states classify them as different levels of hazardous waste.

It takes about 28-34 panels installed on an average home to provide enough power for that home. A solar panel lasts 20 to 30 years barring any damage from a hailstorm or other event.

At the end of 2020, there were approximately 2.7 photovoltaic (PV) systems in the United States. This means that there were approximately 84 million solar panels in the United States alone.

(Getty Images)

While solar panels have been around for a long time, residential use began to increase in the 2000s. Some of them will soon be nearing the end of their life. These signs will need to be removed, recycled or disposed of in landfills and buried.

How many of these solar panels will end up in our landfills? This is a difficult question to answer, given that no industry-wide rules and regulations for recycling have been developed.

While glass and metal can be easily recycled today, the material for a solar panel must be separated. Some materials used in their manufacture, such as lead and cadmium, are toxic.

By 2030, the EPA estimates there will be up to one million tons of photovoltaic waste, and up to 10 million tons by 2050. The EPA says about 95 percent of photovoltaic projects have been installed since 2012 and about 70% in the last five years. years.

Although we are currently dealing with a relative trickle of materials, it won’t be long before there is a flood of photovoltaic waste that needs to be sent to landfill or recycled.

Recycling photovoltaic panels can be an expensive process. Materials must be separated, sometimes chemically, then sorted and even incinerated using carbon-based energy.

According to the National Energy Renewable Laboratory, it is currently cheaper to throw them away. It costs about one to two dollars to throw them away versus 20 to 30 dollars to recycle them.

Recycling centers and perhaps more landfills need to be created as this huge amount of PV material reaches its end of life. Many states do not have recycling centers and have different rules and regulations for classifying and handling toxic waste.

While solar panels can produce electricity quite well on sunny days, they are not as efficient on cloudy days. They also cannot store energy themselves; for this we need lithium batteries.

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