Solar panels are dying in Austin; and now?

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The use of solar panels is slowly increasing around the world. As they become more common, there are concerns about the waste they can create. KXAN viewers wanted to know what happens to panels when they “expire”, so we found out.

“If you go back to about 10 years ago, you’d be amazed at how little solar power was actually installed,” said Paul Watson, Chief Strategy Officer of Native Solar. Watson said about 5% of the grid is currently powered by solar power. The Department of Energy expects that number to reach 30% by 2035.

The solar panels, Watson said, have a 25-year warranty. This means that the few panels installed in the early 2000s are either expiring or reaching a point where they can no longer generate electricity. Panels most often expire due to cracking and general wear and tear.

Solar panels are full of valuable materials. including: glass, copper and aluminum. (Courtesy of KXAN/Frank Martinez)

“Can you dispose of it inappropriately? Absolutely. These things like anything else can end up in landfills.

Landfills or recycling? What is the future of solar

The good news is that solar panels can be recycled and are filled with very valuable stuff. “You’re going to have glass, you’re going to have solar cells, you’re going to have aluminum here,” Watson said.

Recycling them can be a bit difficult for homeowners. First, you have to find someone who recycles them. WeRecycle.com has resources for people trying to recycle their panels. Native Solar is also a partner of the Amicus Solar Co-Op, which has resources for recycling solar energy.

Austin Resource Recovery also accepts solar panels at its recycling and reuse center.

Second, you must hand over the signs to the people doing the recycling. Austin Resource Recovery does not accept solar panels as part of their bulk pickup. They have to drop them off.

“We see them from time to time. Storm damage or things like that,” said Ken Snipes, director of Austin Resource Recovery. They see less than 2,000 pounds of solar panels per year.

When Austin Resource Recovery receives solar panels, they are shipped to a processor in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Here, the different elements are separated, including glass, aluminum and electronics.

Growing with the solar industry

Batteries of electronics fill the warehouse at the recycling and reuse center in Austin
Austin Resource Recovery accepts solar panels. They are brought here, to the electronic sorting site. (Courtesy of KXAN/Eric Henrikson)

Snipes said as the industry grows, Austin Resource Recovery will expand its services. “If we start to see more, we will divert resources or add resources as needed to be able to successfully manage and process these materials.”

Watson said keeping them out of landfills pays off for one simple reason: They’re very valuable. For example, Watson said glass is being scrutinized by the automotive industry, a possible source of windshield glass.

Solar panels are full of aluminum and copper, both of which are precious metals. Watson would like to see the panels crushed and turned into “solar sand”. This sand can be used in batteries to store energy.

Watson doesn’t think Texas will be the leader in this new solar market. He thinks Europe, Australia and some states like Colorado will be the leaders in this area. He said the solar panels took off there.

“These don’t belong in a landfill, and more importantly, they have different streams of value that can come out of them to be disposed of,” Watson said.