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Solar panel disposal: what happens at end of life?

As the urgency for climate action increases, so does the adoption of renewable energy. Namely, solar photovoltaics (PV) – aka solar panels – are one of the fastest growing sources of clean energy. Solar panels have long lifespans, increasingly lower costs, and are safe for the environment! But, what happens to solar panels when they stop producing electricity? Where do decommissioned solar panels go?

There are a few ways solar panels can be disposed, and in this article, we break down what happens to a solar panel at the end of its life.

Key takeaways

  1. Depending on their condition, solar panels can be reused, recycled, or disposed of in landfills at the end of their useful life (around 30 years).

  2. Solar panels are safe for the environment and human health while in use. If irresponsibly disposed of, though, they can release toxins.

  3. Present-day solar panel disposal practices are far from ideal, but the valuable solution solar energy brings to the imminent threat of climate change should not be negated because of this.

  4. Most solar systems have only been deployed within the last five years, meaning PV disposal and recycling technology likely has decades to evolve to meet the growing need for safe and affordable end-of-life management.

  5. Start the solar process today by signing up on the EnergySage Marketplace to receive free quotes from pre-vetted, reputable installers.

Solar panel end-of-life management

Solar panels have a useful life of about 30 years when they produce renewable, 100 percent emission-free energy. There are certain materials found in PVs, like cadmium and lead, that aren’t harmful while the panel is in production but can become a toxic waste hazard if not properly disposed of, making end-of-life management incredibly important for solar energy’s viability as a key power source. As solar energy itself is a young industry, recycling and disposal technology is still being developed and lacks federal policy and regulation. Currently, solar panels are commonly reused, recycled, or disposed of in landfills at the end of their useful life.

Solar panel recycling

Solar panel recycling is beneficial to both the environment and the supply chain. As previously mentioned, solar panels contain a plethora of elements – some rare and valuable, like gallium and indium, and others that are potentially harmful, like cadmium and lead. Recycling solar panels allows for the reclamation of the rare and valuable elements to be re-used in new panels, and prevents the harmful materials from ending up in landfills. Recycling as a form of end-of-life management reduces the environmental impacts of solar energy even further and lowers the cost of solar overall.

While the environmental benefits of solar panel recycling make it the responsible disposal choice, it’s also difficult and expensive. Solar panels are made up of several components, and each component has a unique recycling process. In other words, solar panels cannot be recycled as solar panels; they must be deconstructed and separated by materials first, then recycled using the proper technique for each element. Breaking down a solar panel constructed to operate as a unit is not an easy or inexpensive task. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recycling costs $28 per module, whereas landfilling costs $1.38 per module. Between these higher costs, technical complexity, and lack of policy around solar panel disposal, most PVs end up in landfills today.

Landfills & solar panels

With solar panel recycling still in its infancy, landfills are currently the cheaper and easier disposal option. But, using landfills as an end-of-life solar panel disposal solution is not sustainable. As we’ve already explained, harmful materials found in solar panels can become a toxic waste problem. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that there could be 80 million metric tons globally of solar panel waste by 2050, which would wreak havoc on the environment if the majority of decommissioned PV systems continue to be sent to landfills. However, the situation isn’t dire yet.

Unlike climate change, the solar panel end-of-life issue isn’t an imminent threat. Roughly 70 percent of existing solar energy systems were deployed within the last five years, meaning PV disposal and recycling technology likely has decades to evolve to meet the growing need for safe and affordable end-of-life management. Moreover, the deployment of low-carbon energy, such as solar, is needed urgently to prevent and combat environmental crises like those that arise from fossil fuel-based energy operations. In addition to the greenhouse gasses fossil fuel energy sources regularly emit, events such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 cause lasting harm to the natural environment.

So, while landfills are not a viable long-term solution to the looming solar panel waste issue and current recycling technologies aren’t feasible for every solar project’s end-of-life action plan, this doesn’t negate the valuable solution solar energy brings to the immediate threat greenhouse gas emissions and climate change pose. And through the implementation of solar panel disposal policies and evolving technologies, it’s an issue we are capable of solving in the near future.

Reusing solar panels

A solar panel’s energy production declines over time. Eventually, all solar panels reach the end of their useful lives and are unable to generate power. While these panels aren’t suitable for larger arrays, used solar panels can be useful for certain applications. Small, off-grid systems, for example, don’t require the same level of efficiency or power as larger solar arrays. Refurbishing and reusing decommissioned solar panels offers a short-term alternative to landfilling without the complex process recycling requires.

Explore solar options on EnergySage

Solar energy is a long-lasting, cost-cutting, emission-free electricity solution that continues to evolve to meet the needs of ratepayers and the natural environment. The EnergySage Marketplace provides qualified quote comparisons from local installers to help you find a solar system that fits both your energy and budget needs. Sign up to receive free quotes from qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar today!


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