Solar recycling – a looming problem with a European solution

The price of solar panels continues to drop – down 86 percent since 2009! That means having solar is more affordable than ever and with solar leasing options growing and now California mandating all new construction must include solar, its use is set to explode.

But as I’ve noted before, every solution presents new problems which must be addressed. Solar panels have been rated for a 25-year lifespan. Although they will continue to function after that – many solar panels installed in the 1980’s still function close to their original levels – ultimately they will lose efficiency and at some point need to be replaced. The looming issue here is what to do with those solar panels?

Forester Daily News article details the complexities of recycling solar panels, which are comprised of materials such as glass, aluminum, and synthetic sealing materials to metals like lead, copper, and gallium. And notes  Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, says if they aren’t recycled, PV panels can’t be sent to landfills since they are made with heavy metals and other toxic substances that can contaminate the surrounding soil, air, and water.

But a European recycling association called  PV Cycle offers an  innovative solution to this conundrum. It has developed a process for photovoltaic module recycling that is both environmentally and economically conscious. In 2016, they achieved a 96 percent recycling rate, which is a new record for silicon-based solar panel recycling.

And when it comes to states jumping on the recycling bandwagon, California – always striving to be at the forefront of technological advances – comes to mind. In 2015 the state initiated legislation on solar panel disposal that would support the PV module industry in making end-of-life management of PV modules convenient for both consumers and the public.

The infrastructure and regulations aren’t yet in place to establish solar panel recycling but as the technology and processes now exist, the opportunity is an intriguing one. Could solar recycling become a mainstay in the U.S.? And if it does, could solar panels be upcycled into new goods? The possibilities are enticing. The bottom line is: the more things we can recycle, the less waste ends up in landfills, with less methane to spew into the air. So let’s keep our hopes on this happening, on some regulatory agency and/or some enterprising entrepreneur jumping on this sometime soon. It would be a win all around.

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