Have you ever wondered what happens when the most efficient years of a photovoltaic (PV) solar panel have come and gone? After providing clean electricity for our communities, it would not make much sense to send panels to the landfill once they have reached the end of their useful life. That is why New Energy Equity (NEE) is engaged in various state-based legislation relating to photovoltaic recycling.
The idea of letting panels that have reached the end of their useful life pile up in landfills goes against our core values of sustainability and environmental protection. Unfortunately, many states do not currently require PV panels to be recycled, though there is progress being made on this front.
Washington state is a leader in panel recycling efforts domestically. Earlier this year, Washington’s House and Senate passed HB 2645 which directs the state to design and adopt a comprehensive solar recycling program. This is a great first step in the state’s effort to mandate statewide panel recycling. This is a great first step in the state’s effort to mandate statewide panel recycling.
Looking at legislation a bit closer to home, NEE is closely following Maryland’s SB 0891, which requires the Department of the Environment to develop guidelines for solar panel stewardship programs and mandates that manufacturers develop solar panel stewardship plans.
Like much of our industry’s policies, recycling programs are being developed on a state by state basis. On one hand, this means that the solar power industry will be able to compare the effectiveness of different recycling programs with the hopes that each states will be able to maximize the effectiveness of their own program by learning from other programs in place. On the other hand, the fragmented approach to recycling PV panels means that many states could get away with not developing any recycling guidelines. Given the significant amount of solar deployment we’ve seen across the country in the past 10 years, we must push for each state to create a responsible decommission and recycling plan.
In 15 years, there will be more than 1.1 million tons of modules in landfills in the US alone, unless we develop the policy framework and mechanisms to recycle panels. It is important to note that the importance of recycling solar panels is not predicated on health concerns; research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that disposing of solar panels in landfills is unlikely to have negative impacts on human health, despite trace amounts of lead, cadmium and selenium. Rather, the desire to recycle PV panels stems in large part from the fact that the solar industry prides itself on being part of a sustainable movement and contributing to landfill waste simply does not align with our industry’s values.
Thankfully, there are already various ways to recycle panels throughout the country. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) keeps a list of companies dedicated to the refurbishment or recycling of modules. As of today, most of these companies charge a fee to recycle panels, which varies from $16/panel to $25/panel. A leader in the space, We Recycle Solar, recovers all elements from solar projects including panels, inverters, power meters, racking and mounts, batteries, etc.
Whether you are a developer, installer, or manufacturer, you should ensure that the projects you’re working on have an appropriate decommissioning plan in place, one that considers the many options for PV panel recycling. Additionally, companies throughout the solar industry need to use their voices to advocate for module recycling policy that will be enforceable, cost effective, and sustainable. Stakeholders could also consider joining SEIA’s PV recycling group which provides members with the opportunity to shape PV recycling legislation.
We are at a crossroads: PV module recycling can remain largely unregulated across the US, resulting in a huge amount of waste, or our industry can take this opportunity to think critically about best practices for decommissioned panels. If we are to develop smart module recycling programs across the nation, the solar industry has the potential to become a circular economy, a feat that would be especially impressive for an industry as young as ours.
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