Solar Panels.... “The industry is supposed to be green, but in reality, it’s all about the money”

Solar Panels.... 

 “The industry is supposed to be green, but in reality, it’s all about the money”


"....California has been a pioneer in pushing for rooftop solar power, building up the largest solar market in the U.S. More than 20 years and 1.3 million rooftops later, the bill is coming due.

Beginning in 2006, the state, focused on how to incentivize people to take up solar power, showered subsidies on homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels but had no comprehensive plan to dispose of them. Now, panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their typical 25-to-30-year life cycle.

Many are already winding up in landfills, where in some cases, they could potentially contaminate groundwater with toxic heavy metals such as lead, selenium and cadmium.

Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry expert and chief executive of Recycle PV Solar, says that only 1 in 10 panels are actually recycled, according to estimates drawn from International Renewable Energy Agency data on decommissioned panels and from industry leaders.

The looming challenge over how to handle truckloads of waste, some of it contaminated, illustrates how cutting-edge environmental policy can create unforeseen problems down the road.

“The industry is supposed to be green,” Vanderhoof said. “But in reality, it’s all about the money.”



"....But as California barreled ahead on its renewable-energy program, focusing on rebates and — more recently — a proposed solar tax, questions about how to handle the waste that would accrue years later were never fully addressed. Now, both regulators and panel manufacturers are realizing that they don’t have the capacity to handle what comes next.

“This trash is probably going to arrive sooner than we expected and it is going to be a huge amount of waste,” said Serasu Duran, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business in Canada. “But while all the focus has been on building this renewable capacity, not much consideration has been put on the end of life of these technologies.”

Duran co-wrote a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that noted the industry’s “capacity is woefully unprepared for the deluge of waste that is likely to come.”

It’s not just a problem in California but also nationwide. A new solar project was installed every 60 seconds in 2021, according to a fact sheet published by the Solar Energy Industries Assn., and the solar industry is expected to quadruple in size between 2020 and 2030."


"....Recycling solar panels isn’t a simple process. Highly specialized equipment and workers are needed to separate the aluminum frame and junction box from the panel without shattering it into glass shards. Specialized furnaces are used to heat panels to recover silicon. In most states, panels are classified as hazardous materials, which require expensive restrictions on packaging, transport and storage. (The vast majority of residential solar arrays in the U.S. are crystalline silicon panels, which can contain lead, although it's less prevalent in newer panels. Thin-film solar panels, which contain cadmium and selenium, are primarily used in utility-grade applications.)

Orben said the economics of the process don’t make a compelling case for recycling.

Only about $2 to $4 worth of materials are recovered from each panel. The majority of processing costs are tied to labor, and Orben said even recycling panels at scale would not be more economical.

Most research on photovoltaic panels is focused on recovering solar-grade silicon to make recycling economically viable.

That skews the economic incentives against recycling. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that it costs roughly $20 to $30 to recycle a panel versus $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill.

Most experts assume that is where the majority of panels are ending up right now. But it’s anyone’s guess. Natalie Click, a doctoral candidate in materials science at the University of Arizona, said there is no uniform system “for tracking where all of these decommissioned panels are going.”

The California Department of Toxic Substances collected its first data on panels recycled by universal waste handlers in 2021. For handlers that accepted more than 200 pounds or generated more than 10,000 pounds of panels, the DTSC counted 335 panels accepted for recycling, said Sanford Nax, a spokesman for the agency.

The department expects the number of installed solar panels in the next decade to exceed hundreds of millions in California alone, and that recycling will become even more crucial as cheaper panels with shorter life spans become more popular.

A lack of consumer awareness about the toxicity of materials in some panels and how to dispose of them is part of the problem, experts said."