Solar trash: Without intervention, a shocking (and costly) amount will be produced

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The growth of solar will be instrumental in the world’s fight against emission-caused climate change, but not all is rosy for the technology.

Without changes to the current structure of solar panel retirements, the world could witness some 78 million tons of solar trash disposed in landfills and other waste facilities by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). They predict the U.S. will contribute 10 million metric tons of trash to that 2050 total.

To put into context, the U.S. dumps almost 140 million tons of waste each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So while solar waste may seem like a drop in the bucket, researchers writing in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) are growing concerned that the wave of solar trash may be much larger, and on a much closer horizon than originally predicted.

According to the HBR article, the IRENA estimates may be conservative as they assume a 30-year life for panels before retirement, a timeframe that the HBR authors viewed as probably unrealistic. They said that early replacement of solar panels will likely increase as incentives offered to consumers shift.  

If the cost of trading up for new, more efficient, highly incentivized solar panels is low enough, and if the grid compensation rate is high enough, then the HBR authors said they expected consumers to swap out for new panels, regardless of whether or not their current equipment has more years of productive life.

With this factored in, the HBR projection makes solar waste a much more immediate problem. Projections land at 50 times the IRENA outlook for the next five years. And this analysis only factors in residential-side conditions; shifting incentives at the commercial and utility scale could drive still more early retirements.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that the U.S. ceiling for solar deployment is around 700 GW by 2050. The HBR study’s early replacement projection showed that the volume of waste could actually surpass that of new installations by 2031. Around four years later, panel trash could outweigh new modules sold by more than two-and-a-half times.

Cost problems mounting 

Under current conditions, little financial reason exists to recycle a panel rather than simply throw it away. Panels contain only small amounts of valuables like silver, with the bulk of their bodies made of relatively low-value glass. It costs an estimated $20-30 to recycle one panel, but sending it to a landfill costs on the order of  $1-$2, according to the HBR authors.

To make matters more difficult, some governments classify solar panels as hazardous waste, largely due to a small amount of cadmium and lead. This increases transport costs, requiring longer trucking miles, specialized vehicles and specialized processing centers. Add to this the fact that it requires labor to remove these panels from roofs, fields, and carports, and equipment end-of-life costs increase. 

This would have a thunderous impact on the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of solar, increasing it to four times the current projection, said the HBR authors.

And as for solutions? 

Clearly, solar panel recycling capacity must be built, with a holistic end-of-life infrastructure including removal, transport, and even temporary waste storage.  

The HBR authors suggested that government intervention will be needed to incentivize recycling. Evolution on this front is occurring in Europe, where PV panel producers are now liable for the end-of-life phase of a panel, and for financing waste management, said the IRENA report. 

“Orphaned-waste” programs will also be needed to find a path for panels deployed by companies no longer in business, said the HBR authors.

IRENA suggested the EU-passed WEEE Directive, an electronics recycling regulation, could serve as a waypoint for U.S. legislation. The EU added solar panels to their electronics waste regulations in 2014. But the U.S. has not yet added solar panels to the “e-waste” classification as an amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The UN reports that only 17.4% of global e-waste in 2019 was collected and recycled, even though 71% of the world’s population, in 78 countries, is covered by some type of legislation or policy on recycling. Only one major U.S. panel manufacturer, First Solar, has enacted an in-house recycling program, said HBR.

Complexities

NREL reported that the current regulatory scheme for managing end of life (EoL) PV modules is complex and varies by jurisdiction, and there is not a clear understanding of the permitting requirements or liabilities associated with the full cycle of EoL processing. To date, the most common regulatory mechanisms for EoL product management are extended producer responsibility (EPR) and landfill diversion policies. However, no publicly available study comprehensively analyzes the overall success of these policies, or how they compare to other regulatory models, or whether these frameworks make sense for PV modules, said NREL.

IRENA said with the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries can be spawned to repurpose and recycle old solar PV panels, driving considerable economic value creation. NREL supports this notion, and said that more information is needed to support value creation.

Specifically, they identify a need for more information about the value of and the markets for recovered materials, the volume and composition of EoL PV modules, module recycling technology and infrastructure needs, permitting requirements and liabilities, and costs associated with PV module recycling.

NREL said that decreasing uncertainty will pave the way towards a more appropriate response to this issue.

For example, using mandates or incentives so that manufacturers provide PV module labels with concentrations of hazardous material could provide transparency between stakeholders and eliminate the need for expensive hazardous waste testing.

In general, the NREL report advocated for policies that reduce the regulatory burden for recycling compared to disposal, thereby making the economics of recycling more palatable to decision-makers.

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