With recent decreases in the cost of installing a solar power system (about 50% since 2007), there has been an exponential increase in the number of solar photovoltaic (PV) system installations in the past three years. However, in the United States, we still don’t have an industry-wide system in place for recycling PV panels.
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition released a report last year, evaluating leading photovoltaic manufacturers (U.S. only) commitments to environmental protection, sustainability, and social justice. It found that not a single company has a fully funded collection and recycling program for end-of-life PV modules produced globally. This makes sense because a fully-funded program would make the manufacturer less cost-competitive.
A recycling plan requires the cooperation of the members of the entire solar PV supply chain. The hope is to create industry-wide compliance in end-of-life recycling procedures before the government does it for the solar industries. The regulations that the U.S. government enacts may take years to go into effect and may not be as favorable to solar companies, not to mention the fact that government regulation usually complicates matters and increases the cost of doing business. This added “soft” cost gets added to the price consumers pay for their PV systems.
Members of the Solar Energy Industry Association are currently in the process of developing collection and recycling guidelines. This is preferable to government requirements and is an overall more proactive approach. Many photovoltaic panel manufacturers warranty their panels to perform at a specified efficiency for 25 years, and the typical lifecycle for PV panels is roughly 20-30 years, with some panels having a lifecycle of 40+ years (like SunPower Panels). This means most installed panels have not reached the end of their life and will not reach the end of their life for many years to come so tracking the life cycle is a very real challenge to consider. But if the solar industry is serious about being a truly green industry, we need to come up with a proactive plan for recycling PV panels.
Most PV panels are classified as non-hazardous and thus are not regulated by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. End-of-life disposal of PV panels is, consequently, up to the person or company removing them, which is usually a roofing or construction company. Based on current practices, most construction waste just goes into a dumpster before being hauled off to a landfill.
In Europe, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulates how end-of-life products are treated and what obligations producers of the electric and electronic equipment are subject to. In 2012, the WEEE was amended to include PV panels under the products regulated by the WEEE. Companies producing and selling PV panels in the EU are required to manage the waste at the life of the product since the program went into effect in 2014. Until there’s an equivalent to WEEE regulations in the U.S., those companies that take back solar modules or pay for them to be recycled at the end of their life will be at a competitive disadvantage.
“PV Cycle” is an industry-driven organization in Europe. If a homeowner wishes to recycle their solar panels and the PV panel brand is eligible, they can bring their PV panels to a PV Cycle collection point and have them recycled free of charge. PV Cycle was created by the industry for the industry. PV Cycle was established 5 years before the EU included PV panels under the WEEE directive. This gave the solar PV manufacturers time to adjust and to embrace the change before the government made it mandatory. It’s often difficult to understand the by-laws of the WEEE directive and PV cycle manages the logistics for solar companies, making it easier for everyone involved.
Whether the effort is industry-led or government-mandated, we need to figure out a plan for end-of-life and take-back of PV panels, if solar is to remain a green technology.