A 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency(*) found that, given an average solar panel life span of 30 years, it is likely that millions of metric tons of solar panels will be decommissioned by the early to mid-2030s and may end up in landfill.
That forecast and the pressure to use more responsibly-produced materials for solar panels should incentivize everyone from materials suppliers and manufacturers to installers and utilities to source panels responsibly and seek means to recycle or reuse them. Unfortunately, the tools are not easily available.
Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) Executive Director Aimee Boulanger, FabTech Solar Solutions Director of Business Development Janette Freeman and Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) Supervisor Al Salvi were panelists at the Washington State Solar Summit in October, organized by Solar Washington, and discussed these trends as well as other developments in the solar industry.
Material Sourcing and Value Chain
Throughout the entire value chain in the solar industry, said IRMA’s Boulanger, users and producers are looking much more closely at where materials come from and how they are produced. They are increasingly recognizing the impacts on water sources, fisheries, food and indigenous peoples caused by industrial-scale mining.
IRMA, which started fifteen years ago, hosts a global standard for best practices and is the only global organization for mining standards. When it began, the focus was more on jewelry groups concerned about blood diamonds and dirty gold. Over the last couple years, the impact of mining for elements of solar panels and electric vehicles has gotten more attention. Countries can now adopt standards to improve transparency around mining practices with auditable metrics. While it has taken time to get standards in place and start audits of companies, the first dozen mines are being audited now.
Solar-related components are similar to what is used in other industries, Boulanger said. Bauxite and iron come from places such as Australia or Canada, and nickel or cobalt for batteries from places such as Brazil and Russia. Enormously large mines disrupt landscapes, and they cause serious environmental and social issues. They start with huge clearcuts and create large amounts of waste. After extracting the metal, the most expensive thing companies can do is to move the mound of dirt that is left over back. Even doing that results in earth and water pollution. IRMA is trying to come up with solutions to do extraction with less harm.
Carmakers, for example, are asking IRMA to tell mining companies to mine responsibly. The challenge, though, is whether the companies can still get all the materials they need from their supply chains after mines change their practices.
Mining companies are willing to change because end brands, including carmakers, say they cannot sell their products if they were not produced using responsible practices. Even though it may cost more, responsible mining reduces the cost of conflict and legislation.
End of Life of Solar Panels
At the other end of the cycle, there needs to be a way to manage solar panels when they reach the end of their useful life. Although panels can last 20 to 30 years, many reach end-of-life before that. Solar panels are the fastest growing energy source in America and we don’t want panels ending up in landfills, said FabTech’s Freeman.
Panels’ lifespans can be reduced for a variety of reasons. Some are broken or damaged during installation. Others are manufactured with defects or can be weather-damaged, as with Hurricane Ian. Even five-year-old panels may be replaced when a new roof is installed. Moreover, new technology may make older panels obsolete.
There are two diversion options, Freeman said. The first is reuse, with panels being sold in the secondary marketplace. For a panel to be available for reuse, Freeman said, it needs work and cannot have broken glass. Other components, such as junction boxes or frames, can be fixed. Most solar panels for reuse are sold into the secondary marketplace to do-it-yourselfers. Used solar panels are a great solution for low-cost solar panels, she said, and thousands of people access the power of solar with used panels.
The other is recycling, which is a growing industry. However, recycling is complex and expensive. Solar panels are built from different materials that have to be recycled separately. They are also sturdy, so they are not easy to disassemble. The components include aluminum, glass, a back sheet, copper wire and other valuable materials. There is no economic incentive, as recycling in the US can cost $12 to $25 per solar panel while putting panels in landfill costs only $1 or $2.
While there are challenges, recycling is becoming a necessity. Over time, the scale will increase and there will be more competition as well as more technology, so processes will become much cheaper. The goal for recycling, Freeman said, is to work towards a circular economy whereby materials are reutilized. Along with worries about hazardous materials leaching into landfill, there are concerns about the waste of raw that are not utilized. Aluminum and copper alone would be wasted if thrown in a landfill, and recycling captures those things.
For large volumes of panels, there are only twelve recyclers in the country. The biggest issue is paying the freight to ship panels to those centers. The recycling infrastructure will continue to expand, Freeman said, and there has been a huge increase in companies committed to recycling. Companies that strive for a good ESG rating are making commitments to recycling. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) are three criteria used to rate a company’s commitment to values that can be shared with investors and customers. These early adopters can drive growth by setting higher standards that others will eventually follow and by pushing recycling to become more effective.
For homeowners with small numbers of panels, the easiest approach is to get on social media and sell them.
On the legislative side, said Ecology’s Salvi, Washington State follows federal hazardous waste guidelines and also has state-specific guidelines.
In 2017, Washington State Senate Bill 5939 created a tax incentive to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, and required photovoltaic (PV) module stewardship and recycling. The legislation covers modules sold after 1 July 2017. In 2020, the law was changed so that it includes utility scale projects, retroactive to 1 July 2017. The original legislation, whereby each manufacturer must submit a plan to get panels recycled, was also changed so that they can hire a product stewardship organization that can represent more than one manufacturer. While the program was supposed to be in effect now, in 2020 implementation was pushed to 2023. There was another change in 2021, and the program is now to be implemented in July 2025.
The law applies to panels that are installed on buildings or for free-standing power generation, EV charging stations or street signage. Consumer products such as yard lighting, electronics and solar watches are not included.
Beginning in July 2025, manufacturers selling solar panels in Washington State need to participate in an approved plan, or they will face penalties. Asked whether modules brought to Washington state from 2017 through 2025 will be orphan modules, as manufacturers sell through distributors or installers and there are questions about what will happen to a manufacturer that decides not to sell after 2025, Salvi said Ecology will take the issue to the Washington State Attorney General for guidance on manufacturers that stop selling in the state and still have panels coming in through installers or others.
Looking to the future
Slow but steady progress is being made with sourcing materials that are less detrimental to the environment, enhance the social fabric of societies where mining or other extraction methods are used, and move to close the loop with reuse and recycling of panels and batteries. Government regulations, pressure from end users, evolving corporate social values, technological advances that lower costs of mining responsibly and recycling effectively, and rising costs of energy and materials are key factors that will lead to faster change.
On the recycling front, there are exciting new prospects.
To address end-of-life recycling, Australian scientists may have found a profitable method of electrostatically separating waste from solar arrays. That process could handle about 50,000 panels a year, according to an article in GoodNewsNetwork. A recent paper from the Colorado School of Mines and NREL argues that solar panels can last 40 to 50 years, almost twice what is usually considered to be their lifespan. Prioritizing panel longevity while solutions to the recycling problem are developed would greatly reduce the volume of waste that is expected in the next 10 years.
At the other end of the life cycle, a partnership between a research institute and a Taiwanese manufacturing firm has resulted in the development of a fully recyclable solar module. Recovered materials such as silicon and glass can be reused, saving the decommissioned PV modules from being broken up or degraded.
Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA): https://responsiblemining.net/
FabTech Solar Solutions: https://fabtech.net/
Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology): https://ecology.wa.gov/Waste-Toxics/Reducing-recycling-waste/Our-recycling-programs/Solar-panels